Making Campus Police More Approachable

In the post–George Floyd era, some college police departments are demilitarizing uniforms and repainting cars to appear less intimidating and try to earn students’ trust.

April 15, 2022
 
Franklin & Marshall College
Police at Franklin & Marshall College have swapped out their traditional uniform for a more approachable look.

Like many law enforcement agencies, campus police forces have become the subject of scrutiny, particularly in the post–George Floyd era, when distrust of uniformed officers is high. Many university police wear militarized uniforms and carry gear more commonly seen in combat zones; through the Pentagon’s military surplus 1033 program, some colleges even equip officers with leftover weapons of war, including grenade launchers, M16 rifles and land mine–resistant tactical vehicles. Protests against police brutality and calls to defund law enforcement are as common on college campuses as they are on city streets.

Now some college police departments are deploying a new tactic to try to gain student trust: swapping out their intimidating uniforms and badges for casual clothing that makes them appear more approachable. Beyond that, some college police departments are dropping the black and white paint and flashing lights from their cars, adopting campus colors in an effort to soften their presence. And it isn’t just a look—campus leaders say it’s part of a strategy focused on enhancing community policing.

Focusing on Approachability

Central Washington University was among the first institutions to change the police force’s image, back in 2017, when officers traded their uniforms for cargo pants and polo shirts. CWU police chief Jason Berthon-Koch said the move emerged from conversations with students.

“They had some comments and some concerns about the traditional-looking police uniform causing barriers for some underrepresented students to report and feel safe,” Berthon-Koch said.

The CWU police department also chucked the metal badge, adopting a sewn-on version instead. But changing the image didn’t mean leaving officers without the tools needed to do their job; they still carry the same equipment on their belts.

“Sometimes people in our underrepresented student groups have this image of the police, because they may have had a bad interaction somewhere else, and that police uniform might be a barrier for them to feel that you’re approachable, that you can come up and be spoken to, that you can have a conversation,” Berthon-Koch said. “So with that, we made the decision to listen to our community but also to respect the officer’s ability to do their job.”

Berthon-Koch added that Central Washington University police cruisers are also in the process of being repainted from traditional black and white to white with the school colors of crimson and black.

The Franklin & Marshall College police department went through a similar transformation in 2020 to look less militaristic, which a news release described as an effort to be “more approachable in this era of national protests against questionable law enforcement practices.”

Officers moved from standard police uniforms to khakis and polo shirts. F&M is also removing the light bars from the roofs of police cars to soften their appearance. The college had already dropped metal badges a decade ago, when police chief William McHale was first hired.

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“I think our officers look very approachable, and the feedback has been great,” McHale said.

But like Berthon-Koch, McHale stresses that officers still have all the tools they need to do their jobs. For example, they still wear bulletproof vests, but now they blend in with the uniform, making them less obvious.

“Officers are well protected, but they don’t look like they just crawled out of a combat zone,” McHale said.

Michael Birzer, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University and a former police officer, believes that appearances can go a long way toward improving the perception of law enforcement.

“I think that the uniforms university police wear matter to students,” Birzer said. “The traditional tactical [battle dress uniform] style can certainly be intimidating to students on a college campus.”

Birzer noted that police uniforms have become more militarized over the years, starting with the war on drugs, ramping up in the 1980s and extending to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks two decades ago.

“After 9/11 we began to see the police kind of pull back from what we were trying to do with community-based policing strategies,” Birzer said. “We went into more of a defensive posture, and you begin to see the uniform changes to the battle dress uniforms and darker colors. If you go to certain areas, you see police and they really resemble the military because of the way they’re dressed.”

Today he believes that rethinking the uniform is a good way to improve community relations.

“I think this is an evolving area right now because we are beginning to question the police uniform, the equipment, the styles, how they look and if that may exacerbate situations,” he said.

Efforts to soften the image of campus police can backfire, however. When Amherst College recently unmarked police cars on campus, students grew suspicious and complained that they were not informed of the shift.

“They made this change due to students requesting a reevaluation of ACPD [Amherst College Police Department] and their function on campus,” Amherst student Edmund Kennedy said by email. “The main request of the students was a reduction in the number of armed officers due to their historical lack of necessity. Instead of satisfying the request, this move seems to be an attempt to ignore the students’ request and hide the officers instead. This is not the correct move.”

Kennedy added that “for those of us who are uncomfortable with police officers, we rely on the obvious recognition of the vehicles and uniforms to avoid an uncomfortable situation.”

He also noted that the change makes it harder for students to identify officers in case of an emergency. But ultimately, Kennedy questioned the need for unmarked police cars at Amherst.

“What use is an unmarked police vehicle on a college campus?” he wrote. “Are they conducting sting operations—the operations that would necessitate such covert vehicles? It simply does not make sense in any way.”

Amherst College declined to say much about the change. “We’re in the midst of a comprehensive campus safety assessment process, so comments on specific aspects of it wouldn’t be appropriate at this time,” Amherst spokesperson Sandy Genelius wrote in an email.

Enhancing Community Policing

Changing appearances may make officers more approachable, but it’s just one part of a broader shift in policing strategy, experts say. Forging stronger connections between students and campus police requires more than khakis and polo shirts.

“Changing the uniform is not going to create instant community trust,” Berthon-Koch said. “That’s a step that I think a lot of people need to understand, especially in leadership positions. We, as chiefs, can talk about community policing, we can philosophically debate it, but until you actually walk the walk, you don’t make a change.”

Berthon-Koch has encouraged campus police departments to find new ways to connect with students. At Central Washington, he points to efforts like holding community barbecues with officers in plain clothes, mentoring students and recruiting those interested in law enforcement.

McHale, at Franklin & Marshall, stressed the importance of listening to students.

“In today’s environment, I think we need to be able to be progressive, listen to our constituents and abide by their wishes if it’s possible,” McHale said. “And I think it’s a win-win in this case.”

He also noted the importance of safety as a basic need for student success.

“In order for a student to be successful, they need to be well, physically and mentally. But they also need to feel safe in their environment. So that’s where campus safety comes into play,” McHale said. “And you don’t need to be in full battle gear to accomplish those tasks.”

Beyond improving appearances, Birzer said campus police need to focus on areas such as interpersonal communication, de-escalation and handling situations fairly and without bias. Such skills go a long way in the policing world and can help nurture relationships with students.

“I think we’re in a time now where we’re beginning to question the criminal justice system and policing practices—and rightly so after what we’ve seen in the last few years,” Birzer said. “I think campuses are in a good position to begin to rebuild relationships, particularly with young people. And I think that the more you’re engaged with a group, the better understanding both sides have of each other. And I think that’s important, and that can be fostered in the college ranks.”

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