Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

I am deeply concerned about the real or perceived instances of police profiling on the basis of race, class, gender identity and sexual orientation. I am also concerned about the perception of bureaucratic collusion between the Hamilton Police Department and Colgate’s Campus Safety Office to target specific members of our community.  Many of the incidents of excessive policing I have observed or heard about from both students and colleagues are rooted in a particular form of tone-deafness known as white privilege. The privilege of being White is one that allows so many White people to avoid and ignore the impacts of cultural assumptions about race ingrained in our society. Hamilton, like anywhere else in the United States, is home to subtle racism that manifests as a sort of willful ignorance regarding race, which is directly related to how we all understand the excessive policing of bodies of color in town and on campus. 

Officers from both Hamilton Police and Campus Safety are quick to assure that they do not practice racial profiling of any sort. Such statements fail to recognize the history of policing in the United States and its racist practices. Far too many Americans, particularly young Black men, women and trans* folks, have died at the hands of police in other parts of the United States. Members of communities of color disproportionately populate our prisons. When they are accused of crimes, they are regularly denied access to due process and other civil rights while also experiencing more severe sentences than their White counterparts. 

The legacy of an unjust and racist law enforcement system follows many of our community members to campus. I do not suggest this legacy of harm is reason not to question the sincerity and commitment of our hardworking campus and community officers. Rather, it is to highlight that some in our community – particularly students of color – come to campus with this history, and this shapes their interaction with law enforcement. A one-size-fits-all response to perceived or real harms in our community, which is silent on the role of race in campus policing, is inadequate for all of us and damaging to many.

Imagine the pulsing fear that some in our community experience when a member of Campus Safety or the Hamilton Police approaches them. They may flash back to police overreach they have witnessed or experienced in their own lives. Perhaps they have a family member or close friend who has experienced harm at the hands of police.  Perhaps they grew up in a community where law enforcement fails to serve and protect and instead causes harm and hardship. Such interactions shape individual interactions and responses to police presence in our community. Not everyone in our community has a trust-based relationship with law enforcement. Recognition that students and colleagues of color have this experience in disproportionate numbers to our White students is critical to improved relations between the community and campus police. 

In thinking of solutions, what is the ultimate goal of policing on campus and in our community? I believe the goal is public safety. Yet questions remain about whose public safety is prioritized and whether the safety of some takes precedence over the safety of others. Many members of our community believe that their physical and emotional safety is not a priority. Racially profiling students and colleagues works against the goal of public safety and our community’s expectations of one another in working towards ensuring a safe environment for all.  

A trust-based community policing partnership that prioritizes transparency in who is stopped, ticketed or arrested for low-level crimes is needed, as is frank discussion of why people of color are stopped and questioned more often. We need a problem-solving approach to address the perception that Campus Safety and Hamilton Police officers are there to protect some while aggressively policing the presence of others, notably our students and colleagues of color. This must stop.  

We all live under and are affected by the toxicity of racism. A frank conversation about race and its role in police response on campus and in our community is a first step towards creating a more open, inclusive and welcoming campus climate.