After being inactive for several years, the police advisory board is seeing new life under leadership provided by Dan Welter, director of the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life, and Matthew Jeffries, director of the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center.
Welter and Jeffries attended a community response team meeting last spring where WSU Chief of Police Bill Gardner mentioned how valuable the advisory board was to his department in the past, and his desire to see the group revived. He said it is important for local police to hear different perspectives from community members as way to provide his 22 commissioned officers with some checks and balances.
“We want to know where we’re messing up, where we are doing well, what people are feeling and thinking,” Gardner said. “We’d like to hear from those who are well-informed about the real issues we have in our community.”
Topics selected for analysis
The advisory board will explore officer training, accountability, and community outreach as potential areas for improvement. It will carefully examine implicit bias, the extent and role it’s playing in policing, and determine if additional intervention or officer training is needed. Jeffries said board members are also interested in looking at officer accountability, making sure there is an easy and established way to communicate to the police department should anyone wish to report concerns about an officer. Lastly, the advisory board plans to study how police can better engage with the community by offering educational opportunities, making sure officers are easy to request and finding out more about the topics community members are most interested in.
“I’m really excited about the direction we are going in,” Jeffries said. “In the end I think we will be able to show some tangible changes which is important to getting people to buy into what we are doing.”
Students have a strong voice
Welter said WSU officers have a history of engaging with students and parents through events and programs such as Alive! orientation, and they continually strive to be perceived as guardians of the student community, not enforcers.
“This is an opportunity to address any areas of concern among our students and do so before they become larger problems,” he said.
The advisory board consists of about a dozen faculty, staff and students representing key areas across the Pullman campus including the Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU), Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), Housing and Residence Life, Cougar Health Services, WSU Athletics, and the Faculty Senate.
During a recent meeting, board members decided to add six additional student positions, three of them at-large and three representing diverse student organizations whose members have a vested interest in improving police-student relations.
Anastasia Vishnevskaya, a second-year doctoral student in the Murrow College of Communication and director of Internal Affairs for the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), joined the advisory board because safety and security are hot topics nationally and she is intrigued by how law enforcement operates locally to keep the WSU community safe.
“It’s a good opportunity for me to learn how the police approach their work, but also learn what our responsibilities are as members of this campus community,” Vishnevskaya said. “It allows me to provide our vision and expectations as graduate students for what we would like to see officers doing.”
Event starts change
A half-dozen officers from the WSU and Pullman Police Departments recently enjoyed a casual dinner with WSU students in the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center. The gathering, called the Start Change Initiative, provided an opportunity for officers and students to meet each other and discuss perceptions of law enforcement on the Palouse and how to build mutual trust and a good working relationship with each other.
Allen Sutton, who arrived at WSU in July to assume the role of executive director of Outreach and Education, brought the idea from Auburn University where he previously worked. He said it is a proactive approach that recognizes the best time to build relationships is before a crisis occurs.
“Most of the time when students and officers interact, it is because something bad has happened and you’re trying to figure out how to get passed a bad situation,” Sutton said. “The Start Change Initiative is something positive we can do to get people together without having to worry about a dark cloud hanging over everybody’s head.”
Participants talked about what good police and community relations looks like, the barriers to achieving good relations, and some action steps that can be taken to work towards improvement.
Ideas shared included planning more events like Start Change, encouraging student organizations to invite police officers to drop by and participate in their events, include students of color on police hiring committees, and have officers provide training for the community on the procedures and policies they follow.
An ongoing journey
Senior Hezi Willard, a member of the Black Student Union, said the gathering was an important first step to building good relations.
“This was a very good meeting,” Willard said. “I’m sure more people will attend in the future and lots of good ideas will be generated to keep us moving forward.”
WSU Police Officer Curtis Whitman noted one challenge law enforcement faces is the transient nature of the Palouse area. There are students constantly moving into and out of the community, not to mention game day crowds that come sweeping through in the fall. He said it speaks to the importance of students and the police having regular, ongoing interactions.
“Change can’t happen overnight,” Whitman said. “We need to continue having respectful communication with each other, learn about each other’s backgrounds and how that shapes our views. It’s an ongoing journey.”
Senior Mariela Frias, a member of the Black Student Union, agreed with Whitman but said it is important that things eventually move beyond just talk, to implementing meaningful action.
“We all have to be willing to put in the work,” Frias said. “I’m willing to do my part. I want to be hopeful that positive change is coming.”