Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

I have heard many troubling stories about how Colgate faculty and staff, Colgate students and Hamilton residents experience policing and law enforcement in our community. People who are White, like myself, can live here for years and never have any official contact with a member of Campus Safety or the Hamilton Police Department. People who are Black, Latino/a or from certain South Asian backgrounds report different experiences: they often have multiple contacts with officers from both Campus and Hamilton law enforcement.

No matter how courteous and professional an encounter with law enforcement officers is, it is stressful. So if I were pulled over or stopped when on foot multiple times over my first few months in Hamilton – as has happened to Black colleagues of mine – I would, I suspect, have a very different sense of the calm quality of life here and my feeling of belonging in this community. I suspect this would be particularly true if I were a first-year student, away from home for the first time.

Officers from both the Hamilton Police Department and Campus Safety have explained the procedures for reporting encounters with officers who are not being courteous and professional. I am glad leaders of both organizations are so sincere in wanting to investigate fully any such incidents. But those kind of investigations don’t address the slow erosion of confidence in one’s community that can happen from the repetition of the perfectly polite stop.  

That’s why it would be useful to have information about patterns of stops. Just as individual figure skaters performing beautiful routines one by one can make a mess of the ice, individual members of law enforcement agencies acting with good intentions and mindful of professional standards can still create patterns of interaction with the public that are problematic.

Workers in emergency rooms provide a useful analogy. Like individuals who pursue careers in law enforcement, they do what they do because they love helping people. They too have to make crucial decisions under serious time pressure with limited information. They too wouldn’t do what they do unless they sincerely wanted to help everyone who walked through their doors. And yet they realize that when human beings are making decisions in non-ideal circumstances, we often rely on gut intuitions and snap assessments – instincts of which we are not consciously aware and that can affect our decisions and actions in ways we don’t notice. 

That’s why, for example, Black children visiting an ER for severe abdominal pain were found in one study (Johnson et al. 2014) to receive less pain medication than White children. (The study controlled for confounding factors like triage score, socio-economic status, and type of insurance.) Surely all the doctors and nurses in those ERs had a sincere desire to help all their patients effectively. Nevertheless, data showed a troubling pattern. It also presented an opportunity to take measures that had the potential to disrupt that pattern, like requiring a pain-level check-list of every patient at set intervals. Without a willingness to look at regular activity, rather than focus singly on isolated less-than-professional individual encounters, we will not see the patterns that are there with enough clarity to figure out what the effective responses would be.

The U.S. Department of Justice recommends gathering data relevant to these questions, and it funded researchers at Northwestern University in preparing a Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems. This explanation (from p. 13) about why jurisdictions voluntarily choose to pursue such data collection is instructive:

“The only way to move the discussion about racial profiling from rhetoric and accusation to a more rational dialogue about appropriate enforcement strategies is to collect the information that will either allay community concerns about the activities of the police or help communities ascertain the scope and magnitude of the problem. When police begin to collect information about the racial and ethnic demographics of their stops, they demonstrate that they have nothing to hide and retain their credibility. Once data are collected, they become catalysts for an informed community-police discussion about the appropriate allocation of police resources.”

Of course, Hamilton is not San Jose, Ca; nor is it like many communities in New Jersey – all of whose experiences with data gathering are detailed in this guide. And when officers here worry about not making it home to their families at the end of their shifts, they are mostly worried about people involved in the local meth and heroin epidemics or high on bath salts.  Any of those people might out-gun them, and almost all of them are White.

So nightmares can vary from place to place. But the initial step towards improving a conversation – data collection – strikes me as identical, no matter the situation. I’m hoping some progress could be made towards that, soon.