Published April 7, 2021
Members of the University Police Advisory Committee listened attentively to wide-ranging views of a police presence on campus during a town hall held April 6 on Zoom. While some participants praised the helpfulness and competence of UB police officers, others described negative experiences or a generalized fear of police, or they questioned the need for armed campus law enforcement in the first place.
Before discussing the committee’s goal to foster a “safe, welcoming and inclusive environment,” Chair Luis Chiesa, professor in the School of Law, noted the “straight line” between current events and the webinar addressing a “difficult topic.” Chiesa paid tribute to individuals, both widely recognized and those lesser known, who had died at the hands of police in recent years. He noted that the webinar coincided with the Derek Chauvin trial for George Floyd’s murder taking place in Minneapolis.
The town hall was billed as a listening session so that committee members could hear directly from the campus community concerning their experiences with UBPD, whether positive or negative. Chiesa and others on the panel took pains to limit their discussions, so that the committee could field as many audience comments as possible. “The purpose of the town hall is not to answer questions, teach or feed information, but to shut up and listen,” Chiesa insisted.
For his part, Philip Glick, professor of surgery and management in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said he has worked on all three campuses and attended the Citizens Police Academy about six years ago while serving as Faculty Senate chair. Campus police are well-trained, he said, and are especially equipped to understand the stressors faced by students, particularly during exam time. “It became very clear to me that the University Police understood their customers. They understood the loneliness and the problems they were having.”
But Shivani Avasthi, a master’s candidate in pharmaceutical sciences who lived on campus for three years as an undergraduate, said she has heard from other female students, both graduate and undergraduate, that “you don’t go to University Police” when sexual assault is involved or alleged. “That’s problematic. Students shouldn’t mistrust the people who are supposed to protect us,” she said.
Others argued that an armed police force is unnecessary and not in keeping with global norms. Maureen Milligan, a research administrator in the Department of Neurology, described the international makeup of the Downtown Campus, where she has worked for the past 10 years. “The United States is a complete outlier with police being on campuses,” she said. “And why do they have guns? I’ve looked at the crime statistics on the campus over the years, and probably 90% or more of anything that goes on would not require any kind of [armed] force.”
But Elizabeth Rodriguez, director of the Educational Opportunity Program, who has also worked in Counseling Services, saw firsthand the effectiveness of University Police in helping students in crisis. “The police did a great job with students’ mental health issues,” she said.
For her part, Kathleen Kielar, vice president of professionals for UUP, noted that political and social tensions felt throughout the nation “feed into” the university. She reminded webinar participants that a police presence is required, if only to prevent a single casualty in mass shootings such as happened at Virginia Tech and so many other educational settings in the U.S. “To say that we just don’t need police on campus — I will tell you that one death of a student on campus is enough to go, ‘Why were we even thinking that?’”
Diane Elze, a committee member and associate professor of social work, said she would like to hear from more BIPOC students. She articulated what she was hearing during the webinar and had learned from a survey taken before the forum: “White people really like having the UB Police around. But I’m also hearing … that Black, brown, Indigenous and other students of color have not had good experiences and feel unsafe.”
The webinar is a good start, said Ivanna Colon, director of student support services at Cora P. Maloney Center, but “some real soul-searching” is needed to bring about meaningful change. “I’m a 40-year-old Black woman. I can tell you that to this day, as many interactions as I’ve had with police, I’ve had only one that has been friendly.” She added that calling people of color “to the table” for future listening sessions can be “traumatizing” for those members of the UB community.
In upcoming small group listening sessions, Chiesa urged the committee to work “on different tracks simultaneously” so as to gather impressions and feelings in a safe and respectful manner for those involved. The forum, he emphasized, was only the “opening salvo in what will be a very long process.”
In closing, Chiesa asked participants to send additional thoughts and comments to committee members individually or as a group, and to complete the more detailed survey being distributed post-forum. More information on the committee and its work can be found on its website.