Tufts to Survey Community on Arming of University Police Officers
Is the university’s current model of armed TUPD (Tufts University Police Department) officers the best choice for ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our community? That question is the focus of the university-wide Working Group on TUPD Arming (WGTA), the creation of which reflects a key recommendation from the final report of the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing, as part of the Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution strategic initiative.
To find the answers to this critical question, the WGTA—which represents all campuses and includes faculty, students, and staff—will seek input from across Tufts. As a high priority within these information-gathering initiatives, the working group will make a particular effort to focus on the experiences and perspectives of Black community members and members of other historically marginalized groups.
This fall, the WGTA will invite all students, faculty, and staff to share their experiences and thoughts confidentially via an online survey. The working group will also convene community forums both to offer historical context about the arming of campus public safety officers and to hear from the Tufts community on the topic of the arming status of TUPD.
The WGTA will hold these forums for each of the campus communities (Medford/Somerville, Grafton, Health Sciences Boston, and SMFA Boston), in order to best understand issues that are distinct to each of Tufts’ campuses. In addition, the working group will conduct focus groups with a variety of organizations and affinity groups across the university.
There are many different models for campus policing in higher education. Armed campus police officers are common at colleges and universities in urban settings. But some institutions are now reconsidering the need for and appropriateness of that model. The national conversation about policing and racial justice has added new urgency to such efforts.
Acting on Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution Recommendations
As part of its final report issued in February 2021, the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing described the campus safety and policing model that will best meet the current and future needs of the Tufts community. A number of that report’s recommendations have already been implemented.
Among those are the hiring of the new executive director of public safety, Yolanda Smith. According to Mike Howard, executive vice president of the university and chair of the WGTA, Smith shares the vision of campus safety and policing articulated in the February report and is currently overseeing its implementation.
Citing a decade of steady increases in the number of service calls involving mental health matters—and the possibility of exacerbating these issues through the presence of law enforcement—the report also called for a re-envisioning of a response to student needs that engages dedicated mental health professionals and other highly trained staff.
In support of this effort, Jennifer Previti, a licensed social worker with 14 years of experience in the mental health profession, has joined the university in the role of crisis intervention and threat assessment manager. She will play a key part in reframing the department’s response to mental health crises among students.
Changes will include an expansion of the training that TUPD officers receive on issues related to mental health and the option of contacting the counselor on call directly after hours by calling the number for Counseling and Mental Health Services without having to call dispatch.
Also, in May, the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission (MPAC) re-accredited Tufts’ Department of Public Safety, following a complete review of Public Safety’s policies and processes to determine level of compliance with the standards established by MPAC. This is the department’s fifth re-accreditation by MPAC, which is an organization that provides guidelines for progressive policing to which Tufts Public Safety adheres. The re-accreditation makes Tufts one of only a small number of accredited higher-education agencies in the Commonwealth.
A Focus on Arming Status
With regard to the arming status of university police, the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing concluded that this issue could best be considered by a new standalone group specifically charged with addressing that one issue—a recommendation that led to the formation of the WGTA.
“Understanding the wide range of perspectives among members of the Tufts community is essential if we are to fully and thoughtfully assess the arming of our police officers as part of our comprehensive anti-racism initiative,” said Howard. “Our working group hopes that as many people as possible will share their views and experiences with us this fall. We are listening, and we want to hear as many voices as possible.”
Tufts has engaged the consulting firm of Margolis Healy, a national leader in higher education safety and security that has consulted to a wide range of colleges and universities, to bring specialized knowledge and external perspective to the working group. The firm’s expertise in police reform, race and gender bias identification, less-than-lethal-force alternatives, community engagement, and support for historically marginalized groups will inform data analysis and development of actionable recommendations.
“Everything that we hear from survey respondents and participants in our forums and focus groups will be put in service of those objectives,” said Howard. “Our goals are to meet the needs of each and every member of our community and to create a model for public safety that helps us to become the anti-racist university that we aspire to become.”
Smith echoes Howard’s sentiments. “The university’s goals are the goals of the public safety team. Our officers have responded with collegiality and professionalism in their understanding of Tufts’ sole objective: to become an anti-racist institution that has re-evaluated—up to and including arming—what public safety should look like here at Tufts.”