Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

As a relatively new member of the Colgate community, I was surprised and dismayed by the conversation on diversity with Hamilton Police and Colgate Campus Safety that took place in ALANA on March 3. Hamilton Chief of Police Rick Gifford and Director of Campus Safety Bill Ferguson began the discussion with personal narratives of their (lack of) interaction with people of color. After listing his accolades and length of service, Rick told the story of “the first time I ever saw a Black person” followed by his opinion that regardless of the national issues, law enforcement officers in Hamilton are color blind and we don’t have a problem here. Ferguson opened with a childhood account where he encounters a “White drinking fountain” and a “colored drinking fountain.” In his narration, he valiantly defends Blacks as “people, too.” Aside from these narratives, Bill and Rick expressed hurtful stereotypes about people of color. Gifford said he could identify with students of color because he had worked “in the inner city” and “among housing projects.” Needless to say, almost every jaw in the room was dropped by the end of their introductions.

Several students asked pointed questions about why they are targeted on campus and provided specific accounts of situations where they were singled out. Gifford and Ferguson explained away this evidence as “perception” and interrogated students for dates, details and eye witnesses. Ferguson admitted that he is “not sensitive” to the issues of Black students because he does not have Black children.  At one point, a Colgate professor explained the reality of racial profiling and shared her personal negative experiences with Hamilton Police Department as a person of color. Another professor shared her fear of the Hamilton Police Department and stated that she has personally witnessed campus safety officers overlook rowdy behavior of white students to target peaceful Black students. Several students pointed out the realities of systemic racism and implicit bias in Western culture. After a student shared his vulnerability as a Black man and expressed his fear of law enforcement, Gifford abruptly stood up and marched toward the student and insisted that the student shake his hand. Several members of the audience were visibly shaken and at least one student was in tears. Throughout the session, Gifford and Ferguson responded with defense, justification and victim-blaming.

As a person of Mexican heritage, I was personally offended by the language and stereotypes used by Rick Gifford and Bill Ferguson. But, more importantly, I found their words to be violent against students of color. While we may not have any control over the Hamilton Police Department, I think it is evident that our campus safety department needs department-wide, ongoing, intensive diversity training. Equally, measures must be taken to diversify the department. We can do better, and we must do better.