Students report inconsistencies with Public Safety

In the Spring of 2014, Public Safety sent out a brief online survey to students, faculty and staff intended to assess the campus community’s overall perception of the department’s performance. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65.2%) felt “very safe,” the highest rating one could answer with, and an additional 29.9% felt “somewhat safe.” Only a combined total of 4.9% indicated that they felt “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe.”

But in regards to Public Safety’s role in ensuring this level of safety, particularly the consistency and predictability of their protocols, mixed sentiments among different members of the student body abounds. Specifically, instances of Public Safety’s inconsistent and — what some have deemed — inappropriate responses to Public Safety calls from students seem to serve as the greatest point of contention in the relationship of the two groups.

“I actually don’t get the sense that Public Safety is a very cohesive unit,” RA and SwatTeam manager, Mike Wheeler ’16, said. Commenting on the varied responses he has received from different Public Safety officers, and even the inconsistent responses he’s encountered from individual Public Safety officers in similar situations, he’s found that it’s often difficult for him to know what to expect after making a call in both capacities as an RA and a SwatTeam manager.

 “The extent to which I’ve seen varied scenarios as an RA is all over the place,” he said. “Even with individual officers it can be really different. [In the case of an intoxicated student], sometimes the second the officer gets there they say, ‘we’ve got to take this person to the hospital immediately,’ without even evaluating them. But other times they’ll ask a hundred questions, try to find the student’s friends, and talk to the RA before they decide to make that call.”

Sahir Nambia ’18 has also had his fair share of interactions with Public Safety. Having been on the receiving end of Public Safety’s disciplinary measures, Nambia echoed Wheeler’s sentiments but from a different perspective. Nambia, too, had experienced the uncertainty that arises from the responses of Public Safety officers. Although he had not partaken in any illicit activity that day, Nambia was present when a friend’s room was raided by two Public Safety officers last semester. He described the conduct of the officers as not only hostile, but also terrifying.

“They carried themselves in a really aggressive way and threatened to contact the Swarthmore police if we did not cooperate and give them all of the personal information of who we got the drugs from,” Nambia explained. “That was a coercive tactic that I don’t think is appropriate to use,” he said.  “I understand the difficulty of the Public Safety officer’s role in a situation like this, but to use a terrifying tactic like that just to get information seems like a tool that should be in the toolbox of an actual police officer or someone more concerned with hunting down drug dealers — not a Public Safety officer.”

Nambia knew that his friends had participated in illegal activities, but he still took issue with how the officers conducted themselves and handled the situation. After the experience, Nambia reported having nightmares about the scenario and that one of his friends involved also experienced continued fear after the incident.

“Students are asked to, under any circumstances, trust Public Safety and assume that what they’re doing is in everyone’s best interest,” Nambia said. “But this unspoken assumption can create a lot of confusion within the study body because it’s hard to understand exactly what the limits of the relationship are, or if there even are any. It calls into question ‘Are my feelings from this valid?’” said Nambia.

Leah* ’16, a student who has been involved with Public Safety in a situation similar to Nambia’s, agreed with Nambia and also questioned some of the methods she has seen officers use in the past.

“Their responses are very inconsistent,” she said. “Sometimes they’re very lenient about drugs or underage drinking, and other times they’re extremely aggressive and make students feel very frightened. They are here for our safety, they’re not here to intimidate us,” she said.

Nevertheless, neither she, Nambia, nor Wheeler believed that all officers had exhibited this kind of behavior.

“A lot of Public Safety officers are great,” Leah continued, “But some of them are not. And I think that’s a problem of inconsistency within the department. I do think there needs to be some change within Public Safety about how to appropriately confront people.”

Both Nambia and Wheeler cited the officers’ varied backgrounds in law enforcement as one possible reason for the high frequency of inconsistent responses amongst Public Safety officers.

Wheeler noted that prior to this semester, while working as a manager on SwatTeam on Saturday nights, the responses from Public Safety officers, especially those from older officers, were unpredictable. They rangedfrom immediately shutting the party down despite interjections from SwatTeam members to passively standing by and monitoring the party to ensure that nothing went wrong.

However, Wheeler noted a marked change in the general conduct of Public Safety officers this semester. Instead of jumping into a situation and immediately acting without consulting SwatTeam, Public Safety, especially the younger officers, are beginning to ask what the SwatTeam manager needs help with once they arrive on the scene. This type of response has become more standard.

“I think to some degree, some of them, especially those who have been former police officers, might have thought ‘I’m super trained and I don’t need anybody telling me how to do my job. Not a student, not an RA, not anybody else.’ And I think it comes down to this feeling of overconfidence and a lack of adaptation to the school or the student body. But a lot of those older officers have retired or moved on to other jobs, and the age of Public Safety officers has definitely been dropping which I think has helped,” Wheeler said.

Nambia agreed.

“I don’t want to generalize and say inconsistency is a problem with all Public Safety officers,” he explained. “But I think a lot of those who have had law enforcement or military background or served as Public Safety officers at a larger school differ in their experiences of the kinds of relationships you cultivate in this environment. The approach that works in those other contexts might not work as much here, and it makes a school like Swat seem like more of a hostile presence because we relate to Swat in a more personal kind of way.”

Not everyone had such a negative perception of the department’s work, however.

“Overall I really think they’re trying to work with that they have,” Emma King ’16 added. As a Pub Nite crew member, King has also had multiple interactions with Public Safety officers from being present during walkthroughs that they conduct before Pub Nite begins.

“I think they’re trying to work within all of the limitations given to them by the higher administration with all of the new regulations and alcohol restrictions,” she said. “I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with them.”

Jack O’Connor ’17, social chair of Delta Upsilon, also praised public safety officers’ respectful demeanor during walkthroughs preceding Saturday night parties.

“Especially this semester, I feel like Public Safety has been more friendly — it’s really just their attitude and the way that they come across,” he said. “Their demeanor seems more open and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how they act.”

O’Connor noted that he feels that the most important aspect of fostering a healthier relationship with the department lies in making sure both students and officers feel respected — if the student body puts in effort, Public Safety will reciprocate it.

Officer Tony Green, who has been a part of the Public Safety department for the last twelve years and has had a career in law enforcement for the last twenty, also stressed the importance of both parties’ mutual understanding and respect.

“We want you guys to do this, but you guys want us to do that, so let’s come to a middle,” Officer Green explained. “It’s all about respecting one another’s spaces and that goes both ways… I think with a little bit more time of getting to know one another, it will be okay.”

Opportunities to contact Public Safety officers have increased this year, especially because the 2015-2016 school year marks the first year RAs no longer have master keys, so residents now must rely on Public Safety to let them into their dorms. Public Safety also hosts open houses during the semester intended to draw students to the Benjamin West House and establish relationships between students and officers.

Wheeler proposed one idea that he thought would help develop the relationship between the two parties: “If on Friday Fundays where there’s a lot of stuff going on and there’s a lot of administrators out there, I feel like that would be a great time to see Public Safety because a lot of them are really cool people.”

Director of Public Safety Michael J. Hill, who has served in his position for the past four years, echoed Wheeler’s statements.

“We have an excellent team and they are all passionate and caring folks… I strongly believe that being involved in Public Safety means that the public has to know who you are and the more we engage our community the more open and collaborative our communication will be.”

“I think one thing that I’ve learned, is that Hill, Sam Smemo and Beth Pitts are all super invested in Public Safety as a program and I’ve been so amazed by how invested they are in the student body,” Wheeler said of the department’s Associate Director of Operations and Associate Director for Investigations, respectively. He explained that the trio will go out of their way to greet him whenever they see him on campus and that they’ll attend as many events as possible to help promote a closer relationship with students and faculty. “That sort of thing really shows to me that they care.”

Following the advice of students, officers, and Public Safety administration staff alike, the development of a healthier relationship relies on reciprocal respect, consistency, and greater communication. Despite negative student experiences with officers in the past, the relationship between the two groups is far from irreparable and the Public Safety department seems to be moving towards the right direction.

O’Connor put it nicely:“You can only win with kindness.”

*Some names have been fictionalized in order to protect students’ anonymity.

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