With training and dialogues, DPS highlights diversity

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2012

On college campuses across the country, relationships between university public safety officers and the student body can be fraught with difficulty, especially when issues of race and ethnicity are involved. But officers at the University are well-positioned to deal with the issue of diversity, said Michelle Nuey, manager of community relations and outreach bureau for the Department of Public Safety.

In the last decade, DPS has attempted to increase officer understanding of students’ different backgrounds by implementing two programs — the Diversity Awareness Development Initiative, an annual two-day officer training program started in 2004, and the Officer-Student Dialogue Program, initiated in 2007, which facilitates discussion between officers and students. Nuey said the programs expose officers to cultural issues in order to make the department more effective at protecting the student body.

Diversity awareness training

“Officers undergo training to help them become more culturally sensitized and aware of their own biases,” said Wendy McRae-Owoeye, director of staff diversity. “We have to establish a certain level of professionalism.”

McRae-Owoeye said the training program presented a series of vignettes to officers about different situations involving individuals from diverse backgrounds, forcing them to reconsider their preconceived notions about minorities and others. DPS employees have become “the premier experts” in recognizing diversity issues as a result of the training program, she said.

“Our policy is always to build trust and to build partnerships,” Nuey said, citing the need for officers to maintain sensitivity when working with students of different races and sexual orientations, as well as those with disabilities. “That’s something really unique to our department,” she said.

Nuey said the officer training program brings in presenters from various offices of the University, such as Psychological Services, to discuss issues of socioeconomic background, race, sexual orientation and prejudice.

“We try to engage not only with resources here on campus, but also looking to the greater Providence community,” Nuey said, adding that the University seeks perspectives from skilled community specialists, such as representatives from Crossroads Rhode Island, a homeless services agency.

Still, McRae-Owoeye said the work of bridging the gap between the student body and DPS is ongoing.

“It’s a two-way street. Students also have to provide respect,” McRae-Owoeye said.

Officer-student dialogue

“A lot of people don’t really know what DPS officers do,” said Becky Bass ’13, a minority peer counselor who participated in the officer-student dialogue program in the last year.

Started with the support of the Third World Center, which solicits students of diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to participate, the dialogues are aimed at creating channels of communication between officers and students. The discussion program seeks to create a safe space where students and officers can freely air their views on a range of campus safety issues, said Nuey, a lead organizer and moderator of the dialogues. The number of participants varies from meeting to meeting, though Nuey said dialogues always feature an equal ratio of students to officers so that neither group feels outnumbered.

“We encourage officers and students to be very candid but also very respectful,” Nuey said. “As a moderator, it’s important to distinguish between conflict resolution and dialogue.” She said she aimed to encourage both sides to come to a mutual understanding of the appearances and beliefs that lead to misconceptions about officers’ roles or students’ conduct.

Nuey said the dialogues have led to a greater sense of inclusion among officers who “sometimes can feel like they’re not included in the campus community.” Students and officers have discussed a wide range of issues during the program, from DPS protocol when responding to specific campus safety situations to sensitivity over dealing with members of the LGTBQ community, Nuey said.

“It was really helpful to get to know individual officers and what they do for students,” Bass said.

A student’s ability to build a connection with a single officer can make a real difference in bridging the gap between the two groups, said Shane Lloyd, assistant director for first and second-year programs at the TWC.

“Students feel more comfortable with policemen when they know they can go to a particular officer with whom they’ve developed a relationship,” Lloyd said.

The TWC seeks to use the dialogues to examine myths about racial profiling in the context of students’ assumptions about officer behaviors, according to Lloyd. The TWC is also coordinating a new outreach effort with MPCs, who will discuss issues of diversity with first-year students this semester.

Many participants said the dialogues helped them overcome their own biases.

“Especially in communities of color, there’s sometimes a perception that DPS officers aren’t approachable,” said Emily Gonzalez ’13, an MPC and participant in the dialogues. “I think I can approach them more now.”

Coming from an area in Los Angeles where he said law enforcement officials are often viewed with suspicion, dialogue participant Pierre Arreola ’13, also an MPC, said he initially felt tension around DPS officers.

“My own interactions with police officers were based on fear,” Arreola said. “I was trying to break that boundary for myself and see these officers as people.”

Arreola said he was surprised by the level of honesty in the dialogues and encouraged other students to get involved as a way of better understanding the work of DPS officers. “They want to know more about how we think, and we should definitely know more about how they think,” he said.

Many students indicated they were not aware of the University’s efforts to facilitate outreach between DPS and the student body.

“I had no idea that was happening,” said Rachel Bishop ’13, adding that those efforts serve “a useful purpose for the campus community.” Other students expressed similar views, saying they had not heard of the officer-student dialogues.

Gonzalez said she decided to get involved in the dialogues because she felt they would help her provide better counseling to first-years as an MPC. The discussions are also a way of honestly communicating concerns students have about campus safety, she said.

“If we don’t tell them what is going on on campus that is threatening our safe space, they won’t know how to protect us,” Gonzalez said.

The University is trying to capitalize on the progress made in the dialogues by reaching out to student groups involved with diversity issues, including the Undergraduate Council of Students, the Queer Alliance, Greek Council and MPCs, Nuey said, adding that she hopes this strategy of engagement will expand the discussion of diversity across campus.

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