In the business of policing, we often talk about lessons learned.
Let me tell you something, from my perspective as chief of the university police, we sure have had ample opportunities to learn some lessons here at Yale University over the past year.
Last January, my department came under fire after one of my officers drew his weapon while stopping a young black male who matched the description of an intruder seen at another nearby college where there had been a series of burglaries. It turned out the young man was not the intruder—he was a Yale student. It also turned out the student was the son of a New York Times columnist who took us to task at a time when policing in America, especially in communities of color, was under intense scrutiny.
I ordered an internal investigation and found our officer, who is also black, acted professionally. The University also convened an ad-hoc committee of professionals to review our investigation and to review our policies and practices. They found our policies did comport with contemporary policing practices and our investigation was thorough. These were important findings, but it still didn’t stop people from connecting the incident to the national narrative of black men being the subjects of excessive force by police. People were angry; my campus was unsettled. There were demonstrations by students. And I received letters that, as a black police chief, were very hurtful.
Now, I could have taken offense to this, but I made sure to do something else.
I listened. And I learned. It wasn’t easy, but as a leader it was necessary because the reputation of good men and women, good police people, was at stake.
It was an eye-opening experience. In my heart, I believed that not only my department but me personally had a very good relationship with everyone on campus and a great connection with the community at large. In reality, there was an important portion of our community that felt marginalized and felt quite hurt because of it.
That got me to thinking, and it wasn’t long before I realized they were right. Most of our attention had been focused on the people who got into trouble, leaving pockets filled with underrepresented members of the community who had little to no interaction with us, and thus, saw us only as law enforcement, not law protectors who were essentially just like them – part of a community.
The reality was, I needed to do more. And my department needed to do more.
I encouraged my officers to reach out and have more interaction with everyone on campus. Meanwhile, I wanted to hold a forum, but not the traditionally large gathering where a person speaks and then is not heard from again. I wanted to interact with people, our critics, our supporters, and everyone in-between. So we held smaller meetings throughout the university’s cultural houses (which are centers for minority students). We bought pizza and sat and talked, but mostly listened.
It was an important reminder to me that sometimes, people just need to be heard and we need to hear them.
I did also participate in a larger community forum. At the same time, I also postponed our regular citizen’s police academy and instead reached out to every person who contacted my office and invited them to participate. Some people accepted. For those that came, I felt it played a critical role for them not only understanding what we do, the challenges we face, but also that we are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers with children and we care about the community around us.
We all began to have our eyes opened, and better relationships were built.
Fast forward to this past fall. Once again, controversy visited Yale when minority students expressed concerns regarding Halloween costumes on campus that some considered to be offensive. Another example of marginalization here. Rallies were held. Marches were made across campus. In one case, we had to remove a student from a protest.
And then something interesting happened. Our department was seen not as the problem, but as a resource. Students and other members of our minority community reached out to our department. They wanted to bounce ideas off of me. And at the rally where we removed the student, we were praised for our professionalism.
The contrast was stark, and the reasons for it were obvious: We had reached out, made connections, and ultimately, made a positive difference.
The lessons that were learned could not have been accomplished if, last January, we did not open our ears and eyes to learn while extending our hands to help, and the incident this past fall could have been much more problematic. Keeping those ideas in mind are paramount not just for police at universities, but police in general.
The success of a police department is dependent on the behaviors of the men and woman on the front lines. As good as we think we are as an industry, we need to continuously raise the bar, and at the same time, we need to close the gap. Each and every one of us, from the chief down to the newest rookie on the force, will play crucial roles in rebuilding those connections with the communities we are charged to protect.
That comes one call at a time. One interaction at a time.
Ronnell Higgins, Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Yale University, is an executive fellow with The Police Foundation. Chief Higgins is currently at Master’s Degree Candidate at the Naval Post Graduate School for Homeland Security and Defense (2017), has a BS in Law Enforcement Administration from the University of New Haven and he is a 2006 graduate of the FBI’s National Academy.