Realizing the True Value of University Policing

Small acts of relationship-building between police and a campus community repeated over time will pay dividends in ways that we can’t always predict.

Realizing the True Value of University Policing

At the University of Arkansas, we’ve been working hard to build a more welcoming and safe campus community, and it is paying off.

At the heart of our strategy is a belief that campus police shouldn’t just be there to respond to critical incidents or to enforce the law, as vital as those tasks may be. Our officers should also be concerned with the well-being and safety of students, faculty, and staff. To do the job well, they need to be leading by example and treating everybody with respect and dignity.

I came to policing late in life, after entering the Army in 1984 and serving for over 30 years. I then joined the police department at Arkansas in 2012. Being a university police officer is a great privilege and a huge responsibility. In my view, it’s a job that takes a particular skill set and a certain disposition — not everybody is suited for it.

Since coming to UAPD, I’ve been offered other roles that paid well and were closer to home but I turned them down. I believe that it’s here, in my current role, that I can make the most impact. For me it’s more than a job — it’s where I’m meant to be.

In most situations, an officer should be able to de-escalate tensions and resolve matters without resorting to force. When it comes to dealing with people, you just need to let your humanity show – be open and don’t pretend to be a person that you are not.

I’ve issued tickets to people and had them shake my hand afterward and thank me for the job I do. That’s the kind of respect that every officer should be getting, but of course, it has to be earned. There’s no room for an authoritarian attitude anymore. Be direct and be firm when you must, but never go overboard.

I believe we need to introduce new strategies to deal with the persistent problem we have: the way the relationship between our communities and the police gets tainted by bad officers. This deep-rooted wrong first came to wider attention with the assault on Rodney King, but of course, incidents of police violence were going on long before that. And, as we all know, they have continued since.
It’s not just the headline-grabbing cases that have a negative impact. Every time a police officer is threatening, discourteous, or unfriendly, that sows a seed of mistrust.

At the University of Arkansas, we work hard to achieve the opposite, and it works. We have an annual survey that shows students feel very positively about UAPD. However, no police department can afford to be complacent. Every time there’s a negative story somewhere in the U.S. – every time another incident of officer wrongdoing comes to light – it stresses police and community relationships and threatens the goodwill built over time.

So, this is the challenge that each campus police department needs to proactively address. They need a community outreach entity within their ranks who strongly supported by leadership. And the communications need to go both ways. It’s not just about putting a positive PR spin on the work we do; it’s about genuinely engaging and being prepared to listen.

If anyone in the community has concerns about the way an individual officer has acted, we need to hear about it, and we need to take that seriously. We’ve put the infrastructure in place to make sure that happens.

At the University of Arkansas, we now give every student and staff member a convenient way to communicate directly with our department – using technology that lets them easily request emergency help, ask a routine question, report a concern, and receive important notifications. The app we offer also allows them to reach out anonymously if they wish. Students and staff have confidence in this system and trust in the way our officers use it, which has led to consistently high levels of community engagement over several semesters. Its adoption and use is trending upwards, and that’s significant progress over systems previously used.

Police Visibility, Accessibility Improves Campus Safety

To be an effective liaison officer, it’s important to be both visible and accessible. That’s why I’ve based my office right in the middle of the campus, in the student union building, and my door is always open to anyone who wants to see me.

One recent incident comes to mind that shows the benefits of this approach. The parent of a student called me in distress because they had a particular concern and didn’t know who to turn to. I was able to investigate the issue, get the problem sorted, and provide reassurance. They expressed shock that they were able to reach me and that I responded, but it’s all about making oneself accessible and responsive. I laid the groundwork for this several months earlier when I gave my personal phone number to parents and their students at orientation, as I always do. For any parent, that’s very reassuring – the fact that they can pick up the phone and speak directly to a police officer who will listen and respond.

Small acts of relationship-building like this repeated over time will pay dividends in ways that we can’t always predict, but ultimately are about building confident communities where people respect each other and feel at ease.

But we have to make an ongoing and concerted effort to achieve this. During orientation days, we know the reaction of most people when they come near someone in a police uniform is to walk by and not to engage. So, we make an effort to talk to people, to meet and greet. We use humor and put people at ease. And that’s why I hand out my number.

That’s even truer for some international students if they are coming from countries where the police are not trusted. We let them know that things are different here and that our officers’ job is to protect them.

One way we help get this point across is by bringing our canine division to our introductory sessions, to show students that not all police dogs are there to hurt them. These canines are trained for therapy. Students love to pet our dogs and we continue using them for outreach throughout the year, particularly during final exam season when students are especially stressed. Having a dog is a great way to break through barriers and make friends.

Is our approach perfect? No, you can never say that, but we have the structure in place to monitor how we perform and to continually improve. And we’re proud of what we have achieved.

Our PD is supporting the campus diversity and inclusion philosophy, where people are encouraged to be tolerant and to appreciate different outlooks on life. This is another way to make our communities more resilient and less polarized.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Recently, an individual came on campus to share hostile religious rhetoric. In a different environment, it could have been the spark for significant trouble, acrimony, and disorder, but not on our campus. I was proud of the way our community came together to oppose that individual and responded in a way that demonstrated community support. But I wasn’t surprised. That’s what we’ve been striving for at the University of Arkansas for years. And now that we’re making significant progress, we’re going to work even harder to make sure it stays that way.

We’re also very happy to share our experiences with our colleagues and peers across the country about improving all our campus environments, making them safer, more tolerant, and more welcoming, Hopefully, in some small way, this will help to shape a positive future for our young people – and ultimately for our country.

Corporal Allen Porter is the community outreach and involvement liaison for the University of Arkansas Police Department (UAPD).

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One response to “Realizing the True Value of University Policing”

  1. This is University Policing in a nutshell. So many great points in this article. There is a special bind that can be built between a community and their police department. Keep up the great work would love to chat sometime. Jerry

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