Stanford police deputy Ken Bates wears his body camera on the collar of his uniform. The camera records constantly so that the police department can view up to 30 seconds before Bates activates the camera when he begins an enforcement action.
Wearing body cameras is a direct response to public demand for greater transparency, according to Bates. He has worn his since November 2016, when the department rolled them out for the first time at the Big Game.
“It’s kind of become an expectation of the public that if we’re not wearing it, if we’re not recording a specific incident or action, what are we hiding?” Bates said.
Body cameras and a host of outreach programs highlight the Stanford Department of Public Safety’s push to improve its relationship with the community and students’ impressions of police officers.
Last September, Police Chief Laura Wilson ’80 began recruiting students, faculty and staff for the Police Department Advisory Committee, an initiative to help the department better understand issues affecting the Stanford community. Wilson, a Stanford alumna, hopes that students who are uncomfortable reaching out to the police department can talk to committee members instead. According to prospective member Audrey Huynh ’19, the committee will start meeting during the spring, though an exact date has not been set.
Wilson cited “the tension between police and the communities we serve, particularly communities of color” as well as “the national attention on sexual assault” as the reasons for creating the committee in an email to Huynh.
“I think [Wilson] just wants students to know that police have good intentions and that they mean well,” Huynh said. “She doesn’t want there to be this fear or animosity towards them.”
Wilson has overseen the creation of many other programs to improve the department’s relationship with the community during her 14-year tenure as chief. Officers teach dorm staff how to respond to active threats and excessive alcohol use, run a law enforcement class each winter and even hosted several barbeques for graduate students last summer.
These programs are part of a larger trend towards community-oriented policing rather than in response to increased media coverage of police shootings, according to Bates.
He noted that the Stanford police department was the first in the county to outfit its cars with video cameras.
“I’ve been used to being recorded since the day I started,” said Bates’ patrol partner Sergeant Adam Cullen, who began working in the department 14 years ago.
While Cullen and Bates said that the department’s relationship with the community is strong overall, officers periodically deal with the tension caused by highly publicized police shootings, which have stoked national debate about police use of force – particularly toward people of color.
In November of 2014, the night a grand jury released its decision not to indict a Ferguson, MO police officer for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, special event patrol officers – part-time Stanford Department of Public Safety employees who are often students – received an email warning them to be especially careful when on and off duty.
The email urged patrol officers to cover the patches that identify them as officers when commuting to and from the police department.
Special event patrol officer Brandon Solis ’17 recalled one instance of hostility towards police at a senior banquet in June 2015. An older, white policeman stepped in to guide a heavily intoxicated black student to the medical tent.
According to Solis, the student screamed at the officer, “You’re doing this cause I’m black. You’re racist. I hate you.”
“[The officer] was kinda hurt by it,” he said.
Cullen said that the number of adversarial confrontations he had with community members while on patrol increased at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, but were still “few and far between.”
Students held several Black Lives Matter protests on campus during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years. However, according to Di’Vennci Lucas ‘17, president of the Stanford NAACP, those events were directed at the student body rather than the Stanford police.
“I don’t even think of them as police,” Lucas said.
Despite experiences like Solis’, police officers’ relationships with the Stanford community have improved over the last decade, according to Cullen. When Cullen joined the department, dorm staff sometimes withheld information from officers when they were called to assist intoxicated students.
“We were directed to start spreading the word – through RAs, through community meetings … to try to gain the trust of the residential community on campus,” said Cullen.
The two groups now work together during staff training and as part of the department’s dorm-officer liaison program.
Roble Dorm residential assistant (RA) Elana Leone ’17 recalled a night when EMTs asked her to accompany a student who had drunk too much to the hospital. A Stanford officer followed the ambulance and drove Leone back to Roble.
“It was kind of scary,” Leone said. “I had never called 911 before. The officer that showed up couldn’t have been nicer.”
Former Casa Zapata RA Calah Hanson ’13 appreciated the police department’s efforts as well.
“I could tell that they had the students’ best interest in mind always,” she said.
Not all community members agree. Theater and Performance Studies associate professor Branislav Jakovljević had a negative experience with Stanford police after he ran a stop sign on Feb. 24. According to Jakovljević, the ticketing officer, Cullen, aggressively asked about his nationality.
Jakovljević wrote in a recent Daily Op-Ed that campus police still have work to do in order to serve Stanford sensitively. He wrote that his encounter “suggests that some members of Stanford Police have gaps in their education about the community they are policing.”
“Basically it seemed to me as if all of [Cullen]’s training fell by the wayside,” Jakovljević said. “How safe can we feel if police officers are talking to members of our community that way?”
Jakovljević filed a complaint with the department, after which a captain met with him to discuss the incident.
“They responded promptly and appropriately,” Jakovljević said.
Cullen declined to respond publicly to Jakovljević’s complaints.
Cullen and Bates have repeatedly expressed their hope that positive experiences with officers would lead community members to view them in a better light.
“Quite often I’ll say ‘Give me a chance,'” Bates said. “‘Learn the person inside the uniform. Don’t make the uniform be a wall between you and I.’”
This article is based on an earlier story written for COMM 104W.