The bigotry spotlight has shone brightly on Jena, Louisiana, after an incident where three white teens hung nooses from a tree near the local high school in response to a group of black teens asking to sit beneath it. But this isn't the only campus noose hanging episode being examined on the news or in the courts — the University of Maryland and a North Carolina high school have also fallen victim to this outward demonstration of hate. These events, while not isolated examples of prejudice on school grounds, paint an accurate picture of the intolerance that exists.
In "Hate Crimes on Campus: The problem and Efforts to Confront It," the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finds that while no school is immune to problems concerning hate, college campuses are particularly vulnerable. In fact, the report states the DOJ has brought criminal civil rights actions against students attending institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities. And the FBI reports in its most recent hate crimes statistics, collected for 2006, that of the 7,722 hate crime incidents reported that year, 12.2 percent occurred on campus.
As purveyors of justice, law enforcers, particularly university police, carry heightened responsibility to act as campus watchdogs, zealously monitoring the campus community for signs of bias, says Reggie Shuford, senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Racial Justice Program.
The blue line obviously steps in to investigate these crimes after they occur, but Shuford reminds that authorities are also a factor in promoting tolerance and preventing bias crimes. "Police departments have the legal authority to play a significant role in preventing hate crimes and other acts of hostility," he states.Proactive policing
"When you see a need for something, you can't ignore it," says Assistant Chief Dale Burke for the University of Wisconsin — Madison Police Department. "We don't ever want to be caught in the reactive phase."
In 2003, the UW-Madison PD, under the helm of Police Chief Susan Riseling, received an Education/Prevention Award from the Civil Rights Division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police for measures enacted to maintain the safety of Muslim students after 9/11. The agency's strategies included reaching out to this segment of the campus population to demonstrate that its officers understood and appreciated their fearfulness for retaliation, threats or harassment and wanted to help. The department also hired an individual who'd served in the Peace Corps in a predominantly Muslim community and tapped into his knowledge about Islamic customs.
Endeavors such as these are ongoing at this university of 42,000+ students, from 134 countries. It has to be — more than 1/4 of the student body belongs to one minority group or another. "We try to stay ahead of the game and recognize the things that might arise in order to prepare our staff as much as possible," Burke says. "We want to treat all students with dignity. We want them to feel comfortable with us."
The undertakings of this doctoral university should be adopted into the pages of every college police department's handbook, says Shuford, who explains that the prejudices of greater society — often triggered from a variety of social ills — manifest themselves on the college campus. A sluggish or depressed economy, a political administration hostile to certain human and civil rights, high profile bias crimes or events the magnitude of 9/11 can empower regular citizens to indulge crimes of intolerance.
"College campuses are a microcosm of what is playing out in society at large," he says. "Departments must see what is 'really' happening and why it's happening, and be sincerely committed to addressing these issues."Mirror the community
College universities tend to be very diverse communities, says Christina Abraham, civil rights director of the Chicago Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "Anywhere you go the most diverse segment of a city tends to be where the university is centered," she says. It makes sense then for the racial composition of the campus police agency to reflect the educational community, says Shuford. A diverse police force brings multifarious perspectives and a greater knowledge of the people over whom the agency has enforcement authority, he points out. Less stereotyping may occur, he says, as officers work side by side with people from various minority communities and gain greater respect for their cultures and beliefs.
A department composition that mirrors the community may also boost the public's confidence in the police force. Communities of color, for example, might believe that because there are "people like them" in the department, the agency is "committed to even-handed enforcement," he explains.
Chalmers Sanders, director of public safety at the University of Michigan — Flint agrees that a diverse police force is a noble thing to strive for. But the overseer of safety for this college of 6,600 students emphasizes that the right thing to do isn't always feasible. Many things — from union and seniority rights to a lack of minority applicants — can hinder this effort.
Matching department demographics to the campus community is something all departments struggle with, admits Burke, who emphasizes that the fact all departments compete for the same minority applicants complicates things. The UW-Madison PD runs newspaper ads, participates in job fairs, recruits in larger cities with greater minority populations, targets other colleges and universities for their minority workforce, and advertises online. Yet, he says, the agency still struggles to attain a composition that reflects the campus community.
"People tend to stay in the area where they already live," he says. "No matter how much we reach out to Chicago, Minneapolis or Detroit, it becomes unlikely that people will come here to work when they can get 100 jobs within driving distance of where they currently live." Thus, the makeup of most campus departments generally reflects the community at large as opposed to the campus community. "We will compete for those applicants, but we may have a finite population that we can draw from," he says.
Keeping this in mind, the Madison-based department sets its sights on hiring the best applicants it can, targeting those with open minds and exposure to different cultures. Burke relates current practices back to the old belief that only female officers could process sexual assault cases involving female victims. The profession, he says, quickly realized female officers were not always available and began to question whether a male officer could be just as informed, sensitive and compassionate. They soon learned both male and female officers could handle these cases appropriately. In that regard he asks, "Shouldn't a white officer be able to communicate appropriately and effectively, and in a respectful and dignified manner, with an African American? Shouldn't a Latino officer be able to do the same with a Muslim?" Burke maintains they can — if the right hiring decisions are made.
"I understand that there's a certain degree of credibility in seeing someone in uniform that looks like me. That's why we and other departments strive to reflect the communities we serve," he says. "But this is one of those things you continually strive for but may never attain."Know thy neighbor
Communication. Communi-cation. Communication. These are the three C's of law enforcement when policing a racially and culturally diverse student population. Community policing represents one way of keeping communication channels open, Burke points out.
The UW-Madison PD polices the Eagle Heights housing development on the far west end of campus. This is an area approximately 5,000 students from the campus' international community call home. To fully address the neighborhood's needs, the department has assigned it a community policing officer for more than 15 years. Having a single officer work closely within a given community helps foster trust between the police and international students, who often come from countries where law enforcement officials were feared, not trusted. "Officers get to be seen and observed as human beings not as authority figures, who are going to lock them up and throw away the key," Burke stresses.
Through the university's Summer Orientation and Registration (SOAR) program, the department meets with international students before classes begin. Officers explain who they are, how to identify them, and what students can expect from the department. They distribute pamphlets — available in a variety of languages — that explain U.S. laws and how they may differ from their own country's laws. The documents also define the police department's role and the assistance it can provide.
According to Burke, police outreach efforts are extremely important. "I don't think you can sit back and wait for stuff to come to you. You've got to reach out. You've got to know your community, and the more outreach you provide, the better your community will know you."Training for diversity
Hiring open and approachable officers who are willing to listen is a good start, but Sanders maintains the next step is to ensure these officers are well trained. "You need people who can understand subtle differences in languages and cultures," he explains.
To foster further understanding of multicultural groups, UM — Flint first offered a seminar on "Understanding Culture" to all employees. The university's police and security officers then participated in two days of diversity training led by former Detroit Police Chief Dr. Isaiah McKinnon, best known for successfully reorganizing, restructuring and revitalizing the Detroit PD. Dr. Michael Witkowski, a nationally known security litigation expert, joined McKinnon on the podium as did FBI agent Henry Glaspie III. Sanders emphasizes the training covered "the topics no one wants to discuss," including racial discrimination, racial profiling and more. "I believe if you don't discuss the problem, then you sugarcoat it and sweep it under the rug," he says. "I'm the type of person who says 'here's the problem, let's attack it and see if we can get past this stuff.' "
The instruction continues, and plans are to cover community policing next, then circle back to racial profiling. "This program is designed to expand officer's horizons and views to get them used to dealing with people who don't look like them," Sanders says.
Sensitivity training such as the instruction found on Flint's campus, offers an excellent means of helping officers gain familiarity with the practices of other people, says Abraham, noting that CAIR has provided similar training to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, FBI officials and local police departments.
CAIR's 2-hour instruction primarily focuses on the beliefs and customs of the followers of Islam. For instance, the course discusses the reason Muslims may not look someone in the eye. A Muslim views having their eyes downcast from an authority figure as a sign of humility. However, many Americans regard this as suspicious. "We explain that they are just showing respect," Abraham says. "By looking an officer in the eye, they'd be placing themselves as his or her equal. They have been taught to be polite and look away."
The training also considers the head scarf donned by Muslim women. As Abraham says, not everyone realizes that requesting a Muslim woman to take off her head scarf is the equivalent of asking another woman to remove her blouse. Praying is discussed, and officers learn it is considered disrespectful to step in front of a praying Muslim.
The instruction, which has been offered for about three years, also covers misconceptions officers may have regarding Islam or the Muslim community. Abraham says common stereotypes often include beliefs that all Muslims are suspicious or terrorists, that Muslim men are oppressive of women, or that Muslim women are subservient. Muslim presenters are on hand to explain their culture and the beliefs they hold.
CAIR's program aims to help officers better understand this population. "Our training doesn't tell officers how to conduct themselves in an emergency; they are already trained how to do that," she says. "But if they don't know these things they can offend. When an officer offends the person he's dealing with, that individual loses trust, and as a result may not be as forthcoming with information."More than lip service
No matter what a department does to embrace diversity, whether it is community policing, a culturally diverse department or sensitivity training, Shuford says efforts must be sincere. If things are done half-heartedly or forced upon officers, he says they may not contribute to meaningful change.
"At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words," he says. "If you are simply saying all the right things, but it's just lip service, your efforts will be undermined."
Removing the tarnish of bigotry doesn't happen overnight, Shuford explains, but through hard work agencies can shine the spotlight on tolerance and diversity before it spins into hate.