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Survey provides snapshot of campus safety perspectives

A survey to understand campus community perspectives and experiences related to policing and emergency response on the Ithaca campus has found broad support for the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) but also unease and dissatisfaction with armed policing among Black, Native American, Latinx, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander members of the Cornell community.   

Among the report’s other findings, a large majority of respondents voiced support for having trained mental health professionals conduct personal safety checks instead of armed CUPD officers.

The survey was conducted Feb. 8-21 on behalf of Cornell’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) in an effort to inform the committee’s recommendations to university leaders for reimagining campus security and safety.

“There is no pattern of significant problems with the Cornell police. However, there is strong evidence that some populations on our campus do not feel safe around armed officers,” said Joanne DeStefano, Cornell’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, who oversees the PSAC. “Our goal is to make all members of our community feel safe.”

The committee, comprising students, faculty and staff, advises CUPD and university leadership on issues of public safety and victims’ advocacy, as well as the overall safety and well-being of Cornell’s diverse community.

In June 2020, following widespread national protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, President Martha E. Pollack called for the committee members to “redouble their efforts to engage our community, with a specific focus on procedures and trainings in the areas of use of force, de-escalation techniques and cultural competency.”

This effort includes examining current CUPD policies, procedures and trainings. The committee will send its recommendations to Pollack by May 25.

The survey was sent to 34,646 Cornell community members and had a 22% response rate. Of those respondents, 38% were staff members, 14% were faculty and 48% were students.

More than a quarter (26%) of respondents reported having interactions with CUPD in the last two years. Eighty-nine percent of those community members felt they were treated professionally and with respect, and 84% were left with a positive impression of the CUPD after these interactions. However, 12% of Asian, Black, American Indian, Latinx, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders respondents overall said they weren’t treated respectfully, a sentiment shared by 9% of white respondents.

While a majority of respondents indicated satisfaction with CUPD in general, regardless of any recent interactions, those who are underrepresented on campus – in particular Black and LGTBQ+ identifying respondents – showed much higher rates of dissatisfaction with CUPD.

The survey identified substantial knowledge gaps among all groups concerning CUPD protocols. For example, 42% of respondents indicated that they don’t know who conducts personal safety checks, which is a role that CUPD is largely responsible for on the Ithaca campus.

The survey also sought to gauge the community’s views on two specific topics: feelings of personal safety around armed police officers; and the types of personnel who should respond to personal safety checks on campus.

Forty-three percent of overall respondents felt the presence of armed police officers makes them feel safe and protected. However, 45% of the Black, Native American, Latinx, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander student respondents – 69% of Black student respondents more specifically – responded that armed CUPD officers made them feel uneasy or worse.

Overall, 30% of survey respondents said they feel “uneasy” or “frightened and anxious” by armed CUPD officers.

There was overwhelming support (85% of respondents overall and 88% of students) for shifting the responsibility of conducting personal safety checks from armed CUPD officers to mental health professionals.

When rating the importance of various police functions, more than 80% of respondents said CUPD’s investigative functions – specifically investigating assaults or robberies, racially motivated crimes and Title IX sexual harassment crimes – were their most important duties.

After receiving the survey results, the PSAC initiated a follow-up effort to gain additional feedback from respondents through the creation of 11 focus groups that represent a range of campus constituencies.

A virtual forum planned for early May will allow further discussion and input from survey respondents about their impressions of CUPD and possible recommendations for improvement.

“We are still collecting data from the focus groups, so we don’t have any recommendations yet,” DeStefano said. “But I can tell you, the focus will be on when do we need armed officers and are there activities that do not need a law enforcement officer. I’m very hopeful for some productive recommendations in May.”

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Abby Butler