First and foremost, on behalf of the entire AVATT staff, we would like to thank you for your support. If it weren’t for the readers, student body and administration for supporting our first “Homecoming” article, a town hall with public safety wouldn’t have been possible. We also would like to thank you all for coming out en masse with conducive questions and open minds.
Almost immediately after Chief Brill reached out to us about having a town hall, we went to work promoting it. Although we didn’t even have our date set, we wanted to get the word out that it was coming. Once we finalized a date, you probably saw our flyers posted around campus, on social media or being handed out by our staff. It was very important to us for all students to get word of the town hall so everyone would have an opportunity to have their voices heard.
Second, we wanted to hear your voices, so we went to Instagram for questions that you wanted to be answered at the town hall so that we could type them up for the officers before opening the floor to the audience to ask their own questions.
It was also very important to us that all of the attendees of the town hall be prepared mentally. Being around law enforcement can be nerve-wracking, triggering or just uncomfortable. We wanted a productive environment; obviously many are passionate about the topic of our town hall, but we wanted to make sure the environment was conducive for both the student body and the officers. This is why prior to the town hall, AVATT and Black Men United (BMU) collaborated to host a program on police brutality to mentally prep everyone for the town hall.
Being surrounded by or constantly reminded by the media of the blatant brutality that many innocent people endure by police officers can and will be physically, mentally and emotionally draining for many. Families, friends and communities have been affected by brutality and can be uncomfortable and fearful when confronted by, or are in the presence of officers, the ones who are supposed to keep us safe. No one should feel this fear or be made to feel uncomfortable. Creating a space where everyone is heard and acknowledged is progressive and important. This town hall was needed so that every person whose questions needed to be answered will walk away knowing that they have been recognized.
Overall, the town hall meeting was successful in regards to participation, attendance and respect from most who attended. Many attended and brought really important questions and different perspectives into the conversation that needed to be acknowledged. These were questions regarding the rights of individuals when getting pulled over or how will officers handle certain situations that may be uncomfortable. All of these questions were asked respectfully and answered respectfully as well. I believe important conversations were had, however, I will acknowledge that, at times, people were moving away from the goal of the conversation; to create comfort and stability throughout the community that campus public safety and West Chester police patrol.
There are several things that we cannot do when having a town hall meeting. We cannot badger or taunt our officers into answers, disrespect any officers or people within the town hall or talk over any other voices that are trying to be heard. We need to remember that town halls are safe environments where each and every person has a voice that deserves to be respected. Let’s continue to be mindful of our goals for town hall meetings, creating safe environments where comfort will not come into question, but will be an automatic given to all students and people.
We asked public safety officers about some core questions such as: “What are the escalations of force, and proper ways of approaching a cop?” All questions were answered, but not equally. On topics that seemed more uncomfortable for public safety to respond to, they often went around the question and a follow up question was needed to get the literal answer. When it comes to procedures, these questions were usually brief and to the point.
The levels of escalation of force are as follows:
- A cop’s presence
- Verbal commands
- Soft hands (using physical force, but no weapons)
- Non-lethal weapons such as a baton or mace
- Lethal weapons (firearm)
One concerning statement was that, “if you’re cool with the police, they’ll be cool back with you.” This is concerning for many because “cool” doesn’t have a definition or a set look. Due to the racial tension amongst the police force and black people, if a black person is stopped by the police, they may be anxious or scared, causing them to not appear “cool.“ It is also contradicting because police should be trained to protect. When coming into contact with someone who is not in uniform who is displaying “uncool” behavior, the police should take the lead and deescalate the situation.
Overall, the town hall was a good step for paving the path of good communication between public safety and the students they protect. Work still needs to be done and we hope to have more town hall meetings with other members of public safety. Doing so will allow both parties to gain a better understanding of each other and what things that can be done to improve campus policing.
Following the Public Safety Town Hall, we need actionable and tangible efforts towards change. We need to see that WCU, West Chester Public Safety, West Chester Borough Police and city officials are paying attention to the frustrations and needs of lack and brown people on and around campus. More public safety officers need to put forward an effort to be more personable and understanding of students on campus. Those that weren’t in attendance also need to make an effort to attend any future town halls regarding the system of policing.
Public safety being open about who they have on the force could be a potential start towards transparency. Students being kept in the loop about complaints against officers would also be a step in the right direction. Just seeing that student’s narratives and feelings are being valued and taken into consideration would be beneficial for all parties involved. If we, black and brown people, can not see any forms of accountability from the people meant to protect and serve us, we will never truly feel safe or supported.
So, what needs to happen now? Students expressed their opinions after the town hall some saying they felt their voices were heard, and had their questions answered. Others didn’t feel the same way. Town hall’s in the future or a follow up to this one is definitely needed. Maybe one with smaller sections with the individual officers so every student has a chance to communicate more effectively.
As said before, it’s “one voice one mic.” We encourage everyone to speak, but sometimes one voice doesn’t speak for everyone. We have to remember that all students in the room should be rooting for each other and encouraging everyone to speak up. As for our relationship with the officers, this is a work in progress, but hopefully one going in the right direction. We talked about the issues and problems we had with them this past town hall. But now, in a new year, we have to learn from the struggles that got us here, and come together so a WCU student’s first encounter with public safety isn’t getting kicked out of a party, or a traffic stop from the West Chester police department.
Just as WCU tries to start off on the right foot with us, the relationship between police and students must start off in a positive way too. We hope to continue to evolve the relationships between the police department and public safety, and other community issues to create a voice at WCU, with your help.