Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

 On March 3 in the ALANA Multipurpose Room, Hamilton Police Chief Rick Gifford and Campus Safety Chief Bill Ferguson responded to questions from faculty moderators, staff and students. Immediately, questions were raised as to how Hamilton Police and Campus Safety are responding to the nationwide epidemic of police brutality. Chief Gifford responded to these concerns by claiming that problems of police brutality and misconduct do not and could not occur in his community. He asked us all why we thought something like this would ever happen in a place like Hamilton, New York. He immediately followed up his comments by informing the crowd that police officers in Hamilton are trained in exactly the same manner as police officers across the country. I find it mindboggling that Chief Gifford can claim that his officers, products of the exact same training as all other police forces, would act differently when faced with what they perceive to be a potentially dangerous situation. If police officers in Hamilton, New York receive the same training as officers in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio, then police brutality and misconduct can (and does) happen here.

As students, staff and faculty shared their experiences of racial profiling at the hands of Campus Safety and Hamilton Police, Chief Gifford and Chief Ferguson dismissed each experience by claiming that there is nothing they can do without a formal complaint. All the while touting the effectiveness of the departments’ diversity trainings. If the diversity trainings that Hamilton Police and Campus Safety received were truly effective, wouldn’t they understand that historical and social structures make reporting difficult, if not impossible? Why is the onus consistently on students, faculty and staff of color to prove the validity of their experiences rather than on Hamilton Police and Campus Safety to be better? Students, faculty and staff know when they are being mistreated. Their accounts of racial profiling and misconduct are not merely their “perceptions,” as Chief Gifford claimed. If Chief Gifford is dismissing the experiences of students, faculty and staff as the product of their “perceptions,” how can he possibly expect anyone to file a formal complaint? 

Chief Gifford claimed that police violence does not happen in Hamilton, yet spent much of the brown bag disseminating violence through his rhetoric by saying things like, “all lives matter,” “we all bleed red,” and “White people get killed too.” 

I left the brown bag feeling furious at how Chief Gifford and Chief Ferguson had completely dismissed the stories and experiences students shared about their encounters with Campus Safety and the Hamilton Police force. Despite hearing these testimonials from the students themselves, Chief Gifford and Chief Ferguson immediately disculpated their officers with a myriad of excuses for their behavior. Chief Gifford asked the students how much of what they experienced was just their perceptions. In his mind, it must be merely perception, because students are clearly incapable of reporting their own experiences. Not only do Chief Gifford and Chief Ferguson not understand how the people in their communities are implicated in the broader context of police brutality and misconduct, they also don’t care to.