By Zach Winn · May 5, 2017
This week Campus Safety covered an incident in which Colgate University responded to false reports of a black male on campus with a gun.
On Monday night students were waiting for a shuttle bus when at least one of them thought they saw a male running through the rain with a firearm. The school was placed on lockdown for four hours and the Campus Safety Department sent two emergency notifications to students. The second notification indicated there was an active shooter on campus.
The supposedly armed man turned out to be a student carrying a glue gun he was using for an art project.
After the incident, Colgate President Brian Casey condemned the communication between officials on campus as well as the Campus Safety Department’s overall response.
Casey announced the morning after the incident that he asked Chief of Campus Safety Bill Ferguson to take an administrative leave while he led an inquiry into the role that racial profiling played in the response.
The inquiry will include the questioning of campus officials and the student(s) who made the report (Casey’s statement indicates only one student made the report).
“Communication and enforcement steps were taken that, I believe, confused and harmed this campus and our students,” Casey said in a letter to the community.
Conversations about racial bias are important, but I believe President Casey is picking the wrong context to have those conversations. I wonder if, by questioning the students who made the report, he is inadvertently sending a message to the community that bringing concerns to campus police can reveal problems with the way you think.
Members of the campus community should never hesitate to call their public safety departments, even for something they might feel is minor or may reflect poorly on them.
Universities should be trying to foster an environment where students don’t think twice about contacting law enforcement. If even one report isn’t made because a student is concerned about backlash, then that campus has become less safe.
In short, President Casey is questioning students for something he should be celebrating them for.
Additionally, placing Chief Ferguson on leave, which many will interpret as a punishment regardless of Casey’s reasoning, sends a message that operating with an abundance of caution is the wrong way to react.
Perhaps Casey should consider the situation the Campus Safety Department was in as officials made their decisions: Dealing in real time with a potentially major threat to the community using limited information.
I’m reminded of what longtime campus safety professional Amanda Guthorn told me in my story on the anniversary of the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting. In that case, some faulted campus law enforcement for not doing enough in those difficult first few moments of an investigation.
“I feel badly for Virginia Tech because people were so quick to blame them,” Guthorn said. “It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but when you’re in the business of making difficult decisions in an extremely compressed amount of time under stressful circumstances, you just have to make the best decision you can with the information available.”
This isn’t to say President Casey is at fault for reviewing the incident, but to place Chief Ferguson on leave and talk about the problem of racial bias before the review has even started seems like the wrong order of business.
School officials should always be trying to increase the dialogue between the campus community and law enforcement. Anything discouraging that is going in the wrong direction.