A new beginning in university safety

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch took over as guest host for a conversation with U Police Chief Rodney Chatman, Ephraim Kum, ASUU student body president, and Ayana Amaechi, ASUU vice president for university relations, about campus safety—changes in the works, what students are looking for and how students will be involved going forward. Recorded on Thursday, June 18, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast. My name is Ruth Watkins and I'm the president of the University of Utah. The U Rising podcast gives listeners a chance to learn about the wonderful people that are helping the University of Utah achieve new heights and it also gives us as a community a chance to talk about issues that are on people's minds on campus and in our broader community.

Today, we're going to try something new. I'm turning my seat as host over to Marlon Lynch. Marlon is our new chief safety officer. It's a privilege to have him at the University of Utah campus, and I know you're going to enjoy hearing from him as guest host. Marlon has some guests with him today—our new police chief, Rodney Chatman, and our 2020-21 student body officers, two of the three, Ephraim Kum, who's the student body president and also our Board of Trustees representative from the student population, and Ayana Amaechi, who's the vice president for, I think, university relations. Is that right, Ayana? Good.

So, this is an opportunity for you to hear from these leaders on our campus, our top safety officers, and two of our three student leaders among many, really the elected student leadership, about what's on their minds in terms of campus safety, police interactions and our efforts to include racial equity in policing and in, most importantly, campus safety overall. So, with that, I welcome you to the U Rising podcast, I thank you for listening. And Marlon, I'm going to turn it over to you. Thank you all so much.

Marlon Lynch: Thank you, President Watkins, for allowing us to utilize your forum today to have this very important conversation with two of our student leaders. I am Marlon Lynch. As President Watkins stated, I'm the chief safety officer for the University of Utah and I have been in this capacity since February of this year, of 2020. Chief Chatman and I arrived about the same time. And speaking of the chief, you also joined the U in February, about a month before we became impacted by the pandemic for COVID-19 and, even more recently, the protests that have been going on nationally. What has it been like to lead a university police department during this time?

Rodney Chatman: Well, honestly, it's pretty frustrating. My view on policing involves really a heavy community engagement. I was looking so forward to coming here and immediately getting about the business of interacting with students, as well as our faculty and staff. And as mentioned, shortly after I got here, students went on Spring Break and then COVID hit. So, it really derailed some of those plans. It's been frustrating in that regard. The one positive in all of that is it gave us an opportunity to do some inward focusing on the way and manner in which we do business and do some self-assessment on things that we believe should change and be modified.

But again, with my approach to policing, even that inward look, we can't really implement all of those things without having student input first. That's a vital piece for me. So, we have some ideas of some things that we'd like to do, we would love, and I can't wait until the students come back to campus.

Marlon Lynch: Great. Recently, on June 11, you and I joined together to issue a statement. It briefly touched on our experiences as Black men who've dealt personally with injustice and being profiled, and yet we're both career law enforcement officers. I thought it'd be a good opportunity for you to share the impetus for that statement. Why did you feel it was important to take a visible stance on that particular issue?

Rodney Chatman: Great question. One thing that's unique is that we kind of live in both sides. We are Black men, and I don't know of any Black men or People of Color in the United States that haven't had experiences that we're seeing played out on the news in terms of how we've been subjected to some bad incidences of racism and bias. We know how that feels. We know the firsthand accounts of family members who have had those experiences. We're both fathers, so we've had those communications with our children.

And again, with both sides, when you see what's being played out on the television and you see the real, legitimate hurt that members of the community are experiencing, who look like us, we can have some authenticity in talking with them because we understand that hurt and we can position ourselves, and I hate to think of it as sides, but we can be a bridge between communicating to a profession that's predominantly white CIS male, what this hurt is all about and give some authenticity to that conversation. And then we can also talk with the students who are experiencing hurt, and other members of our community, and give some authenticity to that as well, because we've experienced it.

Marlon Lynch: Yeah. Thank you. The statement also includes a call to action, and you have already begun to make substantial changes in the University of Utah's Police Department. Do you mind sharing some of those changes that you're making?

Rodney Chatman: There's one I can share. I have some great ideas. We've done some internal things and one of the more visible ones that folks will see, or I think will resonate with folks, is that as we bring police officers into our department, I recognize that there's a distinct difference between municipal policing and campus policing. And my view on campus policing encompasses so much more in terms of relatability and service and education, and a lot more hands-on and in a supportive and structured way.

One of the more visible changes that we have is an extensive onboarding process for our police officers before they take the streets, where we expose them to, or will expose them to ASUU. We will expose them to the Counseling Center. We will expose them to the Behavioral Intervention Team. We will expose them to our dean of diversity and inclusion, and a lot of the things that make our policing on the college campus unique to municipal policing. That's one of the initiatives that we have.

There are multiple other ones, but I can't roll those out just yet because I want to have student input. I make an analogy related to a steak dinner. I can make the perfect steak and present it to you but if you're a vegan, I missed the mark. I have 30 years of experience and I have some ideas of what would be great for our community, but I don't want to miss the mark.

I think as we read the headlines and we see what's taking place in our communities, I think it's pretty clear that the community is saying to law enforcement ‘We don't want policing done to us. We want policing in a collaborative and partnership type of fashion.’ And so that's what we need to do here. And again, that's part of the frustration that I've had is that we have some great internal momentum. We recognize that there are areas for improvement. I have my foot on the accelerator in wanting to go in that direction, but I need to have student input. I want them to be a part of the process. Their perspective and their voice is vital to what we do and to what success could potentially look like.

Marlon Lynch: Thank you for that, Chief. Actually, that's a great segue to hear from our student leaders from ASUU, Ayana and Ephraim. I'll start with the question, but would love to have you then just chime in so we can get this discussion going. I'd like to start with, what are the actions that you are looking from Chief and I for safety on our campus?

Ephraim Kum: I think I could take a crack at it to start off. I'll speak in broader terms, because I think that it's an overall broad issue. I think that a lot of students, they want to feel like UUPD actually cares about them. They want to feel like they can be justified in having at least some type of hope, some fragment of trust, in our on-campus police department. You think about a lot of the—how best should I put this? A lot of the actions of the past from UUPD and the way that those have negatively affected students, those aren't isolated events. Those are things that were a product of a culture. And that culture is essentially the thing that students have kind of lost a lot of hope in.

And so I think that for sure that they want to feel like they can have hope, at least a little bit of hope, in what the culture is going to be and showing that you do actually care and then showing the evidence of those two things. So, I think also just being really transparent with students in the pursuit of showing them that you care and showing them that they can have some hope.

Ayana Amaechi: I would agree, too. I could add on a little bit. I think that the formula for coming to terms with the things that have happened in the past would have to just be transparency and inherently, accountability. And so I know that there's been a lot of turnover. There have been a lot of changes, a lot of recommendations fulfilled, which on the outside is great, but on that inside, that relationship needs to be mended. I think that it needs to come from a place of those two things reaching their full potential here. And there's definitely a lot of that. I think that's apparent with our university, especially, but also even more so with the state of the world right now. I think that that's just one of the biggest contributing factors, those two things together.

Marlon Lynch: Yeah. Thank you for that. I know, and we've had very limited discussions in regards to that, and I know in Chief's comments, I definitely echo his feelings in regards to wanting to have students present to contribute to how we move forward with that. But it's obvious and evident that there are some things that can be done sooner rather than later. I don't think that we have to wait as intentionally as we did for hopes for Spring Semester, but there are some items that I know that Chief has initiated, integrating some of the promotions and hiring that has taken place in UUPD by including students in those processes.

I know that also in our design plans for our new public safety building that Ephraim has been able to contribute some of his ideas and bring forward some concerns of the students, what they would like to see in that facility and accessibility for that as well. And that's just the beginning of it. I know what we want, too, your comments for caring and those are emotional things. And what that has to come into play is time spent with you as well. And getting to know you and you the same for us.

Part of what Chief talked about this morning in a department-wide meeting was the sense of family and commitment. And he made reference that we are fathers and we have either children that have gone to college or some that are on their way to it. And I know what it's like to be in a position to have someone's parent come to me and say, ‘I'm essentially leaving my child in your care for the next four to five years.’ That is not something that is going to be taken lightly here. And if that's not a top priority, there is no room for that type of mentality at all.

Any direct or specific questions that either you may have for us?

Ayana Amaechi: Yes, actually I have one. There's been a lot of conversation swirling around about divest, invest, and that's just been something that's a bit controversial among students, among student-based entities on campus. Just maybe hearing a little bit more about your thoughts on how that would affect all of you, how you feel that this is functioning in respect to our campus community and maybe the world as well?

Rodney Chatman: Well, one of the things that I will say with that is, I've heard those conversations obviously as well. What I haven't heard is exactly what that means. I don't have a really universal understanding of what that means. And so consistent with everything that you're going to hear from me is that voice and that perspective from our students and what you guys feel about that and how you think that should be introduced to discussion is what I would want to hear. I think all perspectives need to be acknowledged, all perspectives and recommendations.

What we're seeing in our community right now is we're seeing a community that is saying, ‘We've been screaming about this stuff for far too long, and we want to see change. But we've been screaming about this far too long, and we're not seeing the manifestation that our voice is being heard.’ And so I think it's very critical that that be some of the first conversations that we have. To the points that you guys made about wanting to know that we care. I think that's the first step in letting you know that we care, because we're going to welcome this perspective. We are going to acknowledge both how the policing profession has resulted in generational mistrust of the profession and how real that is. We have to start from a place where we acknowledge that first.

We then have to drill down more locally to our campus. And speaking to what Ephraim started off in speaking about, we have to acknowledge that these instances that have created hurt and distrust among our specific community, we have to acknowledge where we can identify that we weren't at our best. And we have to acknowledge things that we can do to be better. We have to acknowledge, communicate and ask you to hold us accountable for striving for excellence and trying to be better every day that we go about this work. And so those are some of the first steps, but again too, it's a long-winded way of me saying that the conversation about divesting and related to funds is a critical piece and that we need to have a shared understanding of what that means as a launching point for that discussion.

Marlon Lynch: And the only thing that I would add to that is that I would say that we, in particular, are in a fairly unique opportunity, the situation here, because this is a complete rebuild. It is a restructure, already, aside from what may be occurring nationally, just simply for the circumstances that the U was already in. The focal point was we were viewing this as a new beginning. It was a new beginning that would be created by those who are directly impacted and have an interest in how public safety services are presented here at the U. So, we are completely open to discussions and thoughts in regards to how resources are applied.

It's not all to police. And I do support that. I think, well, not that I think, I know public safety is more than policing. There are other services that have to be provided as well. There are engagement components, there's community outreach. It includes the police, but it's not all about the police. We welcome those opportunities and look forward to those various discussions. All right? Any other specific questions that you have? All right, you're good.

I do have one. This is something that, again, not wanting to make an assumption about, but a couple of ideas that I have would be to establish a public safety advisory committee that would have representation of faculty, staff and students from across the institution that would meet twice a month. The various initiatives and decisions that need to be made regarding public safety to include police, security, security systems, community services, would be generated from this particular group with that. And the primary composition would be from standing organizations, like ASUU would have a couple positions, Academic Senate, staff council, and then representations for cultural centers from across the institution. Things like that. That's one piece that provides a voice and also direct input with it.

Another would be an independent review committee that would be in place to review complaints after an investigation is completed, complaints against public safety staff, where there are violations of civil rights, abusive language, unprofessional conduct, things like that. And that committee would have a similar composition, probably smaller just based on the role of what it would do, but they would then have an opportunity to provide comment, feedback regarding policies and procedures and things of that nature.

Those are things that I hear are being asked for nationally as well. Things that we are more than willing to implement here, but I would like to know specifically, or hear ideas that you may have for other opportunities to hear student voices and how we are able to receive more frequent communication from you.

Ephraim Kum: I think that that advisory group is definitely a great place to start. And I think my answer to including more student voices is something that could even be considered at a university level. I think that really what I would see as being productive is taking a look at every single entity that makes decisions that have a profound effect on students and then asking, is there a student present at this table or a part of this group? And then if there's not a student present, then asking why not? And then also, even in cases where there might be a student present, asking why isn't there another one? I think historically students don't even make up close to the proportion, despite the decisions being made having a disproportionate effect on them. And so I think those are a couple of things to consider. If there's no legal or any type of barriers in that regard, I see no reason why we can't have more students in just about every entity that makes decisions on their behalf and decisions that affect them.

Ayana Amaechi: Yeah, I know one thing that's tricky is just with matriculation and making your way through the college cycle. Making sure that those positions are consistently filled can be a difficult task, but also too, it almost feels like that's a tool sometimes used against students to make sure that, not maybe make sure, but just to kind of weed their way out of conversation sometimes. And even if it's an unconscious decision or issue, that leads to a lack of student voice, a lack of consistency, understanding.

One thing I appreciate at ASUU is that it continues to integrate students for a long period of time and continuing on knowledge and initiatives, but the difficult thing even within that is that there's a high turnover rate within ASUU. And I understand that's part of the college experience, but it does get difficult at times when we're all transitioning into becoming ‘adult’ adults, I call them that. But it's just tough because it doesn't feel like we're seen like that, but then there's so much asked of us at the same time or so much affecting us. And that's just kind of a communal thing that I think all college students go through and feel.

Marlon Lynch: Yeah, I understand that having been in college at one point and being a student leader and dealing with the work, life, school balance and all of that. I definitely feel your pain with that. It actually has given me a ton of respect for those that actually do that and sacrifice that, because it is, definitely, a sacrifice. We have to be more conscious of that. And I'm also a fan of those informal conversations and those opportunities to where it's not necessarily structured around a meeting time or a committee. And that means being available. I do plan to be available and make myself available for those types of opportunities. That's actually one of the best ways to learn, in my opinion, is not necessarily in the structured environment, but when you catch people when they are comfortable and being themselves and feel that there's that one-on-one opportunity to have that.

Rodney Chatman: And I agree with that, Marlon, as well. I'm going to make myself available, too. And I wholeheartedly agree in some of those sidebar conversations. That is really what fuels my approach to policing in terms of engagement—it's the intentional conversations that lead to rapport building and trust building so that when those intentional meetings are taking place, there's a level of comfort and reaching out to one of us or are all of the officers, because this is not going to be a Marlon Lynch, Rodney Chatman police department or department of public safety. We need to have every member of our department in tune with the needs of every student on our campus. And that's the direction that we need to go.

And as it relates to what Ayana was speaking on, I would just take a timeout right here and offer my profound pride in the work that you guys do and what you represent for your campuses, because this is your time. This is a very unique time in the history of this country, a unique time for the history of relationships between campus policing and students. And we have to roll up our sleeves and do the work. That rolling up that sleeves is going to be tough conversations. Marlon and I have pledged ourselves to be open and receptive to those conversations, difficult conversations.

And I'm going to say, too, one of the things that makes me very proud looking at the two of you is the work that we're doing is about legacy building and leaving a legacy. And we've acknowledged that there are some hurts and mistrust between the community and the police. And if we do the work and we are authentic in all that we're pledging in this meeting and others that we've had, and will have, there will be a day where you come back as alumni of the university, feeling connected and feeling that the way things are when you come back, that you had a significant role in changing this culture. And so it's an opportunity for you guys to leave a legacy. We are very supportive of that, and we'll help you in any way that we can.

Marlon Lynch: Thank you, Chief. I think that's a real positive note to conclude on for the moment. So, this isn't it. This conversation continues with this group specifically, but also just in general.

I definitely want to thank Ayana and Ephraim for taking some time to participate in President Watkins’ podcast with us. And I want to thank President Watkins again for allowing us to utilize this particular platform, to have this, I'll say initial conversation, and many more to follow. So, stay safe and take care.

Ayana Amaechi: We will. Thank you.

Ephraim Kum: Thank you, guys.