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Community Policing at Tufts

Campus | March 28, 2016

As part of Welcome Week activities this fall, Tufts students had the option to participate in Welcome Back Barbecues and eat free food cooked for them by Tufts University Police Department officers. Throughout the year, there have been other opportunities to engage with Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) over food, such as drinking coffee with an officer as part of a program called “Coffee with a Cop,” or receiving a voucher for a free piece of pizza in response to a “good deed” (“Pizza on the Police”).

These programs and social events are a part of a “self-initiated process to reevaluate, recommit, and renew our focus on strengthening community-police relations,” according to a blurb on the Public Safety website written by Leon Romprey, TUPD’s Deputy Director of Operations. Community Policing Coordinator Officer Tommy Burdulis, Jr. told the Tufts Observer that community policing has always been a part of TUPD’s methods but has become increasingly emphasized after he was hired to fill a position specifically focused on it. The Tufts Public Safety website lists “Coffee with a Cop” alongside four other community policing initiatives: the Cultural Center Liaison Program, the ResCop Program, Geographic Based Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving, and Rape Aggression Defense Training (RAD).

In an interview with the Tufts Observer, Dr. Daniel Isom, Endowed Professor of Policing and the Community at University of Missouri-St. Louis and retired Chief of Police for the City of St. Louis, explained some of the basic principles of community policing. He noted, “More traditional forms of policing have centered around a philosophy of command and control…through your presence and through your enforcement, you control behavior in communities. The community policing philosophy is centered around community partnerships and community collaboration—working together to identify and focus on crimes and disorder that are important to the community. [It tries] to have a collective…problem solving approach, where you’re looking at multifaceted approaches to addressing problems within neighborhoods.” The approach has been recommended, notably, in President Obama’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report.

Officer Burdulis reported he attended internal TUPD trainings about basic principles of community policing earlier in the year and said the department is having ongoing conversations about the approach. He feels that TUPD’s community policing is visible through both programming and general policing philosophy: “I think one of the biggest changes we’ve made is going from a reactive or… ‘warrior’ mindset…to now being 1000 percent like a guardian. When you see there’s a community member in trouble it’s not necessarily ‘What are they doing wrong?’ It’s ‘What can we do to help them?’”

But to what extent are these initiatives effective—and to what extent are such perceptions of effectiveness subjective? Several aspects of TUPD’s community policing initiatives, such as consistent implementation, the role of TUPD within the Tufts community, and the effectiveness of community policing more generally, are worth a closer look.

According to the Public Safety website, the Cultural Center Liaison Program assigns a TUPD officer to each of the Group of Six centers (the LGBT, Africana, Women’s, Latino, International, and Asian American Centers) in order to “develop relationships that will encourage dialogue to address community issues and concerns.”

For the LGBT Center, this relationship has achieved that goal in some tangible ways. Director Nino Testa told the Tufts Observer that the LGBT Center liaison Sergeant Chris McGee “is really…interested in having members of LGBT communities at Tufts feel supported and seen by TUPD and representing their concerns to TUPD, so he’s always been really proactive in terms of thinking about…ways that TUPD can do things better.” Testa described a series of trainings that he conducted for the department this past January, covering topics from “pronoun fluency” to “gender dynamics and expression 101.” The impetus for these trainings, says Testa, came from Sergeant McGee: “He advocated for and asked folks if during regular TUPD trainings in January…we could do LGBT-specific trainings, which we do every couple of years, to make sure that they’re getting more opportunities to talk about gender and sexuality as related to their work.”

However, this kind of productive relationship does not exist across the board. Rubén Salinas Stern, director of the Latino Center, told the Tufts Observer that the Latino Center currently does not have a TUPD liaison, and that no one from TUPD has reached out to initiate a relationship.

In fact, according to Officer Burdulis, only the LGBT Center and the Africana Center have documented liaisons. (Officer Moses Curry is the Africana Center liaison.) Although the Latino Center has had liaisons in the past, Stern explained, “Sometimes we would have a liaison with someone who was on the Boston campus, or we would have a liaison with somebody who works nights and I never got to see the person, and it wasn’t an ongoing relationship.” For Stern, a key factor that could make the program work is officers’ ongoing involvement in the community. “If you only see the police involved in doing policing at events…and that’s your only contact and relationship with [them], that’s really not a good thing. It really does make a difference if the police know who [the students are] and the community.”

Dr. Isom also acknowledged that this relationship is critical and central to the approach: “From a true community policing model, citizens are part of the process; they’re engaged in the process, they approve of the process, and as you work through solutions, even if you’re not present, they are…Because you’re working together, there’s more of a dialogue between the police and the community to resolve issues.”

For some students at Tufts, though, there is a disconnect between TUPD and the Tufts community. In an online survey conducted by the Tufts Observer, students shared negative experiences they’ve had in their interactions with TUPD officers. One respondent who identified as AfroLatino said, “I was flyering on an early afternoon, minding my own business, and was stopped by an officer who asked me if I was a student here. I know there’s not many big brown guys here, but how can someone walking around putting up flyers in the middle of the day seem potentially threatening or suspicious, or even apart from the student body?” A White female-identifying first-year wrote, “I was walking with other female friends at night in the beginning of the year just exploring campus, and officers pulled up and questioned us about what we were doing and ‘where the parties were at tonight.’ We felt very afraid and harassed without giving them any probable cause that we were doing anything wrong.” A Black woman who graduated in 2015 described an incident during her junior year in which she attempted to paint the cannon and was told by TUPD officers that she needed a permit: “I thought he was joking. But he stared me down, told me he couldn’t let me paint the cannon, and asked me to leave. He wouldn’t leave until I did. So I left without putting up much a fight. He stayed in the area just to make sure I didn’t come back. I got back to dorm and talked to my roommate about it and she said she’d heard of no such thing. I was angry and confused and felt targeted because I was [B]lack? Maybe he didn’t realize I was a [T]ufts student? (Not that it should matter.)”

Students seem to be having these negative experiences despite the implementation of cultural center liaisons and TUPD’s other community policing initiatives. For example, Officer Burdulis noted the presence of a liaison to the Africana Center, but also recalled, “The director of the Africana Center said that some of the students don’t have a good relationship with the police. And to hear that, being a kid from Somerville that loved the police, my initial thought was, ‘How is that possible?’”

In a present reality where Black men are more likely to be killed by the police than White men and trans women of color are six times more likely than White cis people to experience police violence, negative relationships with the police, especially for people of marginalized identities, are not only possible, but often inevitable.

Stern addressed feelings of distrust students may feel toward TUPD: “Some of those feelings come from other experiences outside of Tufts. It’s not something that only starts out at Tufts.” When asked to expand on this, Stern said, “If you’re a person of color, a male of color, you have had most likely instances in your life where people are observing you, people are watching you, people are wary of you… I had a student who works here—Latino student, dark skin—who is not overly political, but who already had two incidents [with TUPD] last week…Obviously, this was at Tufts, but if you’re a POC you’ve experienced that before you come to Tufts.”

Nino Testa also spoke about students’ negative interactions with police before coming to Tufts, specifically in the context of the trainings he conducted with TUPD this year. “Part of our conversation was about experiences that queer people in particular—and we talked intersectionally about that too—that people’s experience with police has not always been great. So that was a part of our conversation, and…we talked specifically, for instance, about policing around bathrooms…and being in ‘the right bathroom’ and ‘the wrong bathroom’ and what that means.”

Officer Burdulis went on to say that when talking to people who have a negative view of the police, “I hear their concerns and I say, ‘I don’t blame you if you have a certain opinion of the police if you’ve seen something on the news or you’ve experienced something yourself.’ But actually now, I get it. And the only way to fix that is with positive communication.” But can the “positive communication” that ideally could result from community policing techniques truly mitigate past harm done or prevent negative experiences in the future?

In an entry in the Tufts Disorientation Guide titled “Interactions with TUPD,” senior Cameron Flowers described one instance in which TUPD officers, one of whom he’d had frequent and friendly interactions with in the past, approached him as he biked home from his job at the Interfaith Center late at night. “Both officers start questioning me about my whereabouts and my identity despite the fact that I’ve presented them my Tufts ID. I’m hassled about leaving the center late and looking suspicious and more,” he said. Flowers’ previous relationship with one of the officers did not seem to have any positive impact on the interaction.

And yet, proponents of community policing strategies present the approach—largely based in forming relationships between police officers and community members—as a solution to mistrust of police. Others see the issue at hand as not how policing is done, but rather that it happens at all—police presence, regardless of how benevolent it may purport to be, still causes harm (harassment, brutality, murder, etc.). Critics point out that even when policing is done along the lines of a community policing model, it perpetuates preexisting issues. In a Medium post, activist Deray Mckesson critiqued the term “community policing” as “[suggesting] that the police should be ever-present in black communities — patrolling, tutoring, playing basketball, etc. — sustaining the notion that police presence is what makes people safe…This is not true in many black communities.” More broadly, questions have been raised regarding the effectiveness of law enforcement as an institution. Mychal Denzel Smith wrote for The Atlantic, “Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.”

While there are certainly differences between state or local police departments and a university police department like TUPD, perhaps these analyses can still apply. TUPD is adopting many of the same community policing strategies and philosophies employed by larger departments in different contexts. And while Tufts as a community may seem insular, it does not exist in a vacuum.

Continuing to recount his experience with TUPD, Flowers said, “The whole interaction made me uncomfortable but reminded me that POLICE ARE POLICE REGARDLESS OF IF THEY WORK FOR UNIVERSITIES OR NOT. Regardless of if you go to the school or not, regardless of how you dress, how you talk, they are still police. They carry guns. They are looking for ‘suspicious behavior’ to confront. They are police.”