A joint initiative between Housing and Residence Life and Western Kentucky University Police Department last semester assigned officers to periodically patrol residence halls during their shifts.
Tim Gray, WKUPD Public Information Officer, said the goal is to foster trust and comfort in students towards police and dispel the perception that police presence is cause for concern.
“We wanted our students to get to know the men and women behind the uniform,” Gray said. “If there’s a positive relationship built there two things may happen: students in the community are more apt to engage in dialogue with officers, and students really begin to take ownership in keeping their community safe and engaged.”
Gray said the program will allow police to take a proactive approach to enforcing the law by giving officers insight into problems students experience that usually go unnoticed.
Gray hopes that by engaging students with police, he can begin to change negative perceptions that many young people have towards police.
“You’re always going to have folks from across the country come with their own perception of law enforcement, and they’re not always positive, so there’s still plenty of folks out there who don’t have trust in law enforcement,” Gray said.
Gray feels the residence hall policy, combined with drug awareness programs and other means of community outreach, has been successful in improving perceptions, but that it’s a gradual process.
“There’s always going to be some distrust, but by and large what we’re seeing are gradual steps semester by semester,” Gray said.
Jacob Hagan, a resident of Minton Hall, says that while he appreciates the safety that comes with increased police presence, he still maintains that law enforcement will not always improve a given situation.
“I feel safer when they’re around, but in the same sense I feel uncomfortable at times,” Hagan said. “I feel like sometimes a situation can be misjudged and they can take the wrong action, ultimately making the situation worse.”
Hagan said his perception comes from his knowledge of police action nationally, rather than perceptions of campus police. Research shows that nationwide, trust in law enforcement by college-aged individuals has sharply declined in recent years.
Chastity Yocum, a resident of Pearce-Ford Tower, said she feels that her perception of campus police has worsened since officers began to be assigned to residence halls.
“Seeing all-male officers come to a women’s dorm makes me feel really uncomfortable,” Yocum said. “I’ve had officers check me out and ask really invasive questions. One cop was really flirty with me and it freaked me out.”
Yocum suggested that at least one female officer should be assigned with male officers when entering a women’s residence hall.
When asked about this suggestion, Tim Gray agreed but pointed to an overall lack of female officers both on campus and nationally.
“For her to have that concern, it makes sense,” Gray said. “We currently have one female officer, and at one time, we’ve never had more than two female officers on the force, and that’s been a big push of ours when we talk to criminology and sociology students. We want more women in law enforcement. We need more women in law enforcement.”
Gray said if students ever feel uncomfortable or concerned, they should reach out to the WKUPD so that they can continue to improve policing methods.
Officers continue to patrol campus while students work from home amid COVID-19 concerns, but limit in-person interactions within halls to those that necessitate police presence, such as urgent or emergency calls.
“Once normalcy resumes, our officers will be back to conducting building walkthroughs in all of our campus buildings, including the residence halls; particularly the hall or halls that will be housing students,” Gray said.
Mike Reagle, Executive Director for Housing and Dining, said he believes students getting to know officers is important for both their safety and for the community at large.
“I’ve not heard anything negative about the presence of officers,” Reagle said. “At the end of the semester, I’ll talk with the chief and see if there are any changes that need to be made and if the program should go forward.”
Reporter Michael J. Collins can be reached and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Michael on Twitter at @NotMichaelJColl.