Chatham police and students work to define their relationship

By: Teri Bradford

Campus police officers are an important part of the college experience and are on campuses across America and Chatham is no different. Chatham Police are here to work with the community to keep this learning environment safe and secure.

There has been talk in recent years, however, that there has been a lack of trust and interaction between the campus community and the officers in charge of protecting us.

“I believe that the connection between students and the [Chatham Police] is dwindling,” said sophomore student Asia Williams, who thinks the connection is lost when students don’t know who the officers are. “Last year we were introduced to the chief and the few officers on duty. This year, as the number of students grows, so does the number of new officers. It’s important for the students to feel safe and to be aware of exactly who is here to protect us.”

“I’m out on campus as much as I can to get to know students,” said Chief of Police Donald Aubrecht (affectionately known simply as ‘Chief’) at a Chatham Student Government meeting at the beginning of October.

He attended CSG to help get a conversation between students and Chatham Police started.

“I encourage officers to do that. We’re working on how to get all officers on all shifts to work on the same page,” he said.

Aubrecht discussed working with the Deans and ultimately with Resident Assistants and Graduate Resident Assistants, as well. RA’s and GRD’s are trained to reach out to Chatham Police in case of emergencies or risky activities that may happen within the dorm halls.

“If you know the officer you’re dealing with, and the officer knows you, [things work out better],” Aubrecht said.

Some students, however, think the relationship between students and Chatham Police is one that may just be misunderstood.

“Students would like a more open dialogue, but I also feel the importance in kind of having a separation between students and public safety officers so they can still be seen as authority figures,” said Alice Shy, a junior. “I want them to be seen as people who can protect me. I think people get the lines blurred. Students need to understand that the roles of public safety officers are not to drive them around but to protect them. If they’re picking them up, then they can’t take care of things here. If it came down to it, then they would have to weigh the options of what’s more important.”

Shy touches on one of the most talked about issues on campus: will Chatham Police pick up a stranded student in Pittsburgh?

Aubrecht makes his expectations clear on what Chatham Police will do for Chatham students.

“If you’re down on the South Side, and you’ve been drinking, we’ll come and get you,” said Aubrecht. He told CSG that this scenario includes students in unsafe situations such as missing the last [Port Authority] bus at night, stranding them. He identified the location Chatham Police will go to as Downtown Pittsburgh, Shadyside, South Side, Squirrel Hill, and Oakland. He also included students who need to use the Chatham shuttles to get to class or a hospital.

“If you miss the shuttle, and it’s 30 minutes to the next one, call us. We’ll get you there, and we’ll get you back. The shuttle doesn’t go to Mercy or Magee [Women’s Hospital of UPMC] but we will,” said Aubrecht.

Some students, however, say that this promise is too good to be true and that Chatham Police makes using them as a resource complicated. Sophomore Maya Carey had a negative experience in the past.

“I was over in the South Side when I was a wee little first year. We had gone to the hookah bar,” she said. “We weren’t even intoxicated; we were just stranded past 2 a.m. in the South Side. None of us knew how to use the bus system except we knew that the buses ended at 2 a.m.”

Carey and two friends — one of whom was an international student — weren’t sure how to get back to campus, and they were out of money, so they called Public Safety in hopes of getting a ride back to Chatham.

“They were so angry at us. They hung up on us once, I think,” she said. “They said they would get a supervisor, but they never did so we had to call back 20 minutes [later].”

By some measure of luck, Carey and her friends found a bus on its last run for the night, but it took them to an unfamiliar part of Oakland.

“Chatham Police reluctantly picked us up from [where the bus had dropped them off] and were chastising us the entire way back to campus,” Carey said.

“They were not happy to drive out to Oakland much less SouthSide at 3 in the morning, but I wasn’t happy about being stranded at 3 in the morning,” she continued. “People were drunk and throwing up [in the street]. I was scared, I had never been to Pittsburgh or lived in the city before.”

“There should be a consensus between all officers on what they can and can’t do. They should all be there at once to get that clear with students,” said Shy.

Aubrecht doesn’t dismiss these statements but said this is a result of how things were mishandled in the past by the man who had the position of Chief before him. He said that officers were not inviting to students and made things difficult for them. Aubrecht said he has worked hard to change this and all of the officers, new and returning, have come a long way, even from last year.

“I have talked to all of the officers about how important it is that students get back here safe and unharmed. [Some officers] were so used to how it used to be that it was hard for them to change,” he said about previous attitudes. “I really want to work to make sure [students] are safe; that’s my priority. If something like [Maya’s experience] happens, I want to know. When we don’t do well, I want to know so we can do better.”

Coordinator of Residence life, Kim Small agrees with Chief Aubrecht. She advises students to act if they feel there is an issue.

“I don’t think there is a disconnect [between students and Chatham Police] but, if students feel there is a problem, then they should bring the information forward,” said Small.

Though negative stories spread across campus quickly, some students have had positive experiences with Chatham Police.

Juliet Casinelli, a junior transfer student, has only recently interacted with Chatham Police for the first time after breaking her foot a few weeks ago.

“Breaking any bone most certainly makes you vulnerable, and you lose some of your independence. The Public Safety Officers here at Chatham helped me adjust to that so easily,” said Casinelli. “From helping me adjust my crutches to the correct length to giving me rides from the apartments to the main campus, they were always just a phone call away.”

In Casinelli’s experience, officers are always willing to help out.

“The few that I had interactions with were fabulous and really helped me out in my time of need. Our chief here at Chatham especially, he went out of his way to help me with parking and making this process as easy as possible,” she said. “Having officers on campus you can trust is an indescribable feeling. Though we may not reach out to them every day, knowing that we have the option to really makes being and living on campus a better experience.”

At the conclusion of the CSG meeting with Chief Aubrecht, students and Chatham Police both were open to start creating a positive relationship within the community.

Distant relationships: students and campus police

Everyone today has their own perception of the police, especially through the media’s representation of law enforcement officials. For some, when they think about police, they think about drugs, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner. Some people even think about biases that police have against certain groups.

However, the same is not true for Chatham University’s campus police. Many of the people that I have interviewed—varying in background, race, and gender—trust that the campus police do their jobs. But they do not support the distance between students and Chatham police.

“[One thing I would change about public safety] is [them] not sitting in their cars all the time,” said first-year Madison Mlinac, who is a criminal justice major and a member of Chatham’s first male basketball team.

I too agree with this statement. I see campus police riding around in their patrol cars or even sitting in their cars, and this time could be used to get to know the students and even the faculty. If their job is to protect, then why not get to know the people that they are protecting?

Asuka Kanazawa, a sophomore international student from Japan who is majoring in English, wishes to build relationships with the campus police.  

“I want to communicate with them,” she said. “It’s important, especially being [an] international student.”

Safety should definitely be a major factor for international students such as Kanazawa. These students are miles away from their homes, and Chatham and the United States and its culture are unfamiliar to them.

What we have to do is admit that there is a distance between students and campus police and try to find ways to bridge the gap between them.

In a previous meeting with the Chatham Student Government, Donald Aubrecht, Chief of Chatham’s Campus Police of four years, said, “All of the officers try to attend the sporting events, Easter egg hunts, [and other events] so that students can get to know the officers.”

This is a great way for campus police to get to know students because it lets the students know that there is a support system out there beyond their friends and peers; and also, campus police aren’t just there when something goes wrong.

I encourage all students to take advantage of campus police and get to know them especially since Chatham is a small campus. Although my mother works on campus, I still try to build relationships with other officers.

Every student I asked said that they knew Chatham’s police officers by face, but not by name. When I was in high school, this is how it started my freshman year. There were four security guards, and I didn’t get to know them until late in my sophomore year.

I ended up meeting them when I ended my friendship with a close friend at the time, which I hate to admit, because it should never take something bad happening to take advantage of the resources around you. We as students should feel obligated to have relationships with public safety because, in the end, when we need them the most, they will be there at our rescue.

CMU takes on police brutality

Is there a lack of trust between police officers and the general public? What makes a good cop or a bad cop?  How are officers perceived by the general public? How do stereotypes play into how officers police urban communities? What kinds of mistakes on the part of law enforcement should be forgiven?

These are the hard questions that have been being asked all over the country over the years. At Carnegie Mellon University, the Theta Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the Beta Epsilon Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity came together, along with Lieutenant Joseph Meyers and Larry Powell of CMU’s Equal Opportunity services, to discuss the state of policing in America.

The discussion started with introductions from everyone involved. Lieutenant Meyers has worked as a policeman for 30 years. He has worked in cities, suburbs, small towns, and even Homewood. He spoke of the evolution of some perspectives on relations between the public and police officers among the group of students.  

“It seems like black boys are considered to be adults younger than people of other races,” Theta Beta’s President observed, bringing up the case of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ohio.  

The intergenerational as well as interracial questions of respectability were brought up. Does a suit and tie guarantee more safety than a hoodie and jeans? Should it?

“Why can’t we just wear whatever we want and be safe?” one girl asked.

The Lieutenant spoke honestly and candidly referring back to his own experiences and addressing the experience of the students. He admitted that over the years in Pittsburgh there have been quite a few incident between white police officers and African-American men.

The mostly millennial audience has grown up in the time of the first African-American president and multiple heritage months, but millennials have also grown up in a time of Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. Although the group came from different universities and had different majors, what they had in common was a feeling of unease around law enforcement.

“If Sandra Bland was white, she’d still be alive,” a student said in a disheartened, but matter of fact tone. Most of them had more than one story of a time when they felt targeted, were treated badly or with suspicion by officers of the law, or felt they were perceived and treated as “instant criminals.”  

“I think the only way to really hold police officers accountable would be to have all cops wear body cameras,” one student said.

Many of the young men in the audience spoke of feeling unsafe around police officers and shared their thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement. Lieutenant Meyers said simply that there are no easy answers but, “You gotta have the communication on the streets. Respect on both sides.” He also shared his belief that in comparison to his officers during his years patrolling, officers today are not trained on how to deescalate situations.

Protest in East Liberty stops traffic

On Tuesday, November 11, traffic was brought to a halt in the East Liberty area of Pittsburgh when a group of demonstrators marched in protest of police actions.

The protest, which occurred exactly two years after Leon Ford was shot and paralyzed by Pittsburgh Police in a traffic stop in 2012, was meant to draw attention and awareness to the issue.

They were also protesting the fact that they officer responsible for the shooting is still on the street.

The group chanted, “Who do we support? Leon Ford,” and demanded to see Pittsburgh’s Chief of Police.

Ford was shot four times after fleeing from Police during a traffic stop. Police later said that they feared for their lives, causing them to open fire.

Ford was eventually found not guilty of the two counts of aggravated assault against Officer David Derbish, the officer who shot him.

The jury, however, was deadlocked on the other charges, which included resisting arrest, escape, and reckless endangerment.

The protest lasted a little over an hour, at which point the group of about 20 demonstrators peacefully dispersed, after being asked to by a police lieutenant.

They did, however, succeed in bringing traffic in East Liberty to a standstill for the duration of the protest, during the height of rush hour.

This event comes after a nationwide wave of backlash against police actions, most notably the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which stemmed from the August 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown

The hope, according to the protestors, is to open a dialogue that will eventually improve the relationship between the police force and the community.