BY TAYLOR ROBINSON
At the Nov. 17 Washtenaw Community College board of trustees retreat, the main topic of discussion was the possibility of integrating armed police officers on campus to increase campus security and safety – particularly as a result of the staggering number of mass shootings across the United States.
“Do we have a safe campus here? Yes. Is there a problem here yet? No. Am I concerned that it could happen since it’s happened at other campuses? Yes,” stated WCC President Rose Bellanca at the beginning of the dialogue. “As a president, I need to bring that to your attention. That is the rationale behind this presentation. We’re really happy people here, everything is great, but are we ready for anything that could occur? I’m not sure that we are.”
After researching multiple options including hiring on-campus Student Resource Officers, instating an on-campus police department, working with a private company, or keeping security as it is currently, the board invited Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton and Commander Marlene Radzik to speak with the board at the Dec. 8 meeting for further guidance. In addition, the conversation continues because of the upcoming expiration of the current contract in place with the Sheriff’s Department. The expiration is set for the end of December and the board faces the decision of whether or not to renew the multi-year contract.
Some of the questions addressed issues ranging from how the implementation of multiple SRO’s would affect the staffing and budget of the current security team to how police officers would interact and engage with a community college environment.
“When I hear people say they shouldn’t have police officers on campus, I push back really really strong,” Clayton said. “There is tremendous value having law enforcement officers on campus if we establish the appropriate protocols, lines of responsibilities, roles, and there’s clear communication through all of that.”
In addition to the concerns about how police officers would be integrated on campus, some raised questions about the “uptick” which could result in having a police presence on campus. Trustee Dilip Das’ explained that if the campus were to suddenly have police officers on campus enforcing things not previously enforced, some students may end up in the criminal justice system whereas they may not have before.
“I will say personally, I have a concern about that uptick because we then join that pipeline of wrapping more of our students into the criminal justice system where currently we have a low level and suddenly a cop comes on full time on campus and suddenly there’s an uptick in arrests,” Das said. “And…more of our students are engaged in the criminal justice system.”
Clayton responded by saying although incidents may go up, arrests wouldn’t necessarily do the same and incidents and arrests are two different things.
“There are certain things we would have to enforce, but I would say that the things we have to enforce are things you’d want us to enforce anyway,” Clayton said.
Further discussion revealed Clayton saying that these are details that would need to be talked about and decided while working in conjunction with the administration and the campus security already in place.
As the board, sheriff and commander brought their conversations to a close, Vice Chair Diana McKnight-Morton (sitting in for Chair Richard Landau) opened the dialogue to the board as to whether or not they felt the need for more time on the issue or to proceed with the recommendation of Tab H of the agenda stating “That the board of trustees authorizes the president to negotiate a multi-year safety and security contract, for further approval, with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office based on the “school resource officer” model.”
The board members had wavering opinions toward the recommendation with some saying they wouldn’t be comfortable with approving the negotiation of a contract and instead would rather have further conversations.
“I think that I’m comfortable authorizing the negotiations understanding that also in parallel, we are able to continue the conversation and also get further input from faculty and students about what it is they want and what that should like,” said secretary Christina Fleming.
McKnight-Morton and trustee Stephen Gill were in similar agreement with Fleming’s comments, although Gill did raise the concern about what would happen if the current contract expires. Bellanca answered that police would still respond in the event of a 9-11 call.
“I think before I authorize, there should be more dialogue, more questions,” Das said. “I have a couple more questions, personally, so I think that this is a big decision, so I would feel more comfortable with a little more discussion.”
Trustee Ruth Hatcher expressed the same feelings, along with the need of reaching out more to faculty, staff and students.
“I think there needs to be some student focus groups discussing this. I think faculty need to be involved with this and I haven’t seen much campus-wide, except for a survey, involved at all. I’m looking for broader conversation than just this.”
After gathering the overall feelings from the board, they agreed that more discussion is needed and will take time to think about the options over break before the January board meeting.
Although Bellanca did tell the board she wants them to take their time and continue asking the questions they have, she did convey a sense of urgency.
“The consequence is, which I’m fine with waiting, but everyday, and believe me, I’m not overreacting, we are responsible for the safety of our students, our staff, as well as the community members that work on this campus. I take that very seriously as I’m sure you do too.”