“We are extremely concerned about the state of the Vassar College Safety and Security Department,” read the opening page of a recently released security survey conducted by Margolis Healy and Associates. Five months after retaining their services, the Vassar College Administration released the firm’s preliminary report regarding its security policies to students and staff. The review, entitled “Vassar College Public Safety Management Study,” though declining to definitively state if racial profiling occurred at Vassar, wrote that certain Security officers responded inappropriately to incidents commonly referenced as moments of racial profiling.
Of the 38 suggestions in the report, most speak to combating perceived structural inefficiencies. Along with strongly advising the institution to create clearer operating procedures and to update the Security Department Officer’s Manual, the report also advised the College to launch diversity and inclusion training to address perceptions of racial profiling.
Representatives from Margolis Healy, a college security review firm comprised largely of former law enforcement officers, asked faculty, staff, alumnae/i and students for their thoughts on the Safety and Security Department and on their perceived level of safety on campus. For five days in September, associates from Margolis Healy conducted forums and one-on-one interviews with a variety of community members before withdrawing to review their findings and draft recommendations.
Among the main concerns of the report are the serious issues within the Safety and Security Department. It stated, “It was readily apparent during our time on campus that the Department does not have an appropriate infrastructure for effective strategic and operational management.”
The report continued, “It is this lack of up-to-date, effective policies, combined with several other factors, that likely contributes to wide variation in performance and conduct amongst patrol officers.”
The report enumerates the lack of a defined standard for written directives that would govern the actions of individual Security officers. Margolis Healy asserted that written directives are fundamental to all security programs and help prevent issues of racial profiling and other unfair practices.
Without these established procedures, the firm argues, only limited behavioral protocol can exist, thus allowing for varying interactions between the Security Department and students. “For example,” the report explains, “we found no evidence of the existence of a use of force policy to provide guidance about when levels of force, if any, are authorized.” Through interviews with Security officers, the study also found varying practices regarding when to stop individuals on campus.
While unclear policies have harmed students, Margolis Healy also noted the toll of such ill-defined standards on Security officers. The firm observed, “Generally, the officers expressed a fear of doing their jobs because they are confused as to what is expected of them.”
The report further articulated the effects of apparent institutional shortcomings within the Security Department. Describing two commonly cited incidents of perceived racial profiling, the report first denies both incidents as moments of racial profiling and instead argues that these stand as instances of improper Security responses which were the result of larger, flawed systems. The report noted, “This incident does not appear to meet the definition of racial profiling since the officers were responding to a call for assistance from a campus community member.”
Beyond these instances, the report fails to explicitly establish any pattern of racial profiling. It said, “While we were unable to definitively determine if Safety and Security officers purposely engage in a practice of biased-based policing, primarily based on the lack of available data to analyze…” Instead they noted anecdotal narratives of community members experiencing racial profiling.
Despite the lack of statistical evidence, Margolis Healy felt that the College must significantly alter its behavior due to the perception of Vassar as a campus where racial profiling occurs. The report argued, “There is absolutely no doubt that many members of the Vassar College community believe that the Safety and Security Department routinely engages in racial profiling.”
The report also highlights that accounts of racial profiling have largely gone unaddressed in recent years, likely exacerbating tensions between students and administrators. The firm remarked, “It is troubling to note that these complaints appear to be consistent over the years, which implies that the Department has not changed the way it engages with traditionally underrepresented groups and that the College has not held those responsible for enacting change accountable.”
Margolis Healy noted that these incidents cannot be perceived as isolated and require considered, large-scale shifts in policies.
“In our professional opinion, the perception of racial profiling in the Safety and Security Department is reflective of other larger campus climate issues related to diversity and inclusion,” said the report. The firm offered a series of recommendations to address the intersection of race and security on campus, in regards to the operation of the Security Department and campus climate.
The firm first recommended the use of body-worn cameras by Security officers. The firm also advocated for the creation of a Safety and Security Advisory Committee consisting of various elements of campus, to address all issues of security and review the Department’s benchmarks for success. Another such group from the campus community is recommended to serve on committees assisting in the hiring of new Security officers to ensure a diversity of experiences and identities, thus assisting in combating problems of racial profiling.
The firm also believed that many of these issues are the byproduct of larger shifts within the College. “During our time on campus, we noted palpable tension around the College’s readiness to welcome diversity and provide appropriate support for members from traditionally under-served groups,” explained the report.
It also noted, “It appears that the College has not implemented appropriate programming to orient students to their multi-cultural campus environment. This is problematic in several ways, and many students of color expressed being treated disrespectfully by their own peers.” This finding is noted again later in the report that the popularly cited incidents of racial profiling originated from student requests for Security officers.
The report said, “We believe it is important for the College to consider diversity and inclusion programming for the entire campus community.” More specifically, Margolis Healy suggested universal training and re-training programs for all facets of the College. The firm wrote, “The College’s leadership [should] take the lead and commit to diversity and inclusion training to demonstrate to all members of the community the importance of a broad understanding of issues of diversity…”
The firm also suggested, “[Vassar] should invest in initial orientation and ongoing training programs for Safety and Security Department to build stronger awareness, knowledge, skills and sensitivities around issues of race, diversity and inclusion.”
At an open forum with Steven Healy, students, faculty and members of Security cast doubts on the efforts and motives of the Administration. Healy highlighted that his firm was neither fully equipped to advise on diversity training nor did he believe the College will fail to achieve its aims.
Chief among concerns with the report was its qualification that it could not prove racial profiling as a patterned action due to insufficient data. One student asked, “Why is data being held higher than firsthand accounts?” Both Healy and President Hill denied this, arguing that data collection—as the study suggests officers ask students for their perceived racial or ethnic identity—would allow them to better hold officers accountable and that Margolis Healy did recognize the value of personal narratives.
The Chairperson for the Security union also criticized the College’s motives. She said, “I brought up this situation in 2008. I am a product of racial discrimination here at Vassar.” She noted that the report advises that Security officers receive diversity training, which she says they have long been willing to do. “We started a petition to say that we never had any problems with going through racial profiling training. We stated that we wanted it to be in our package for officers to get training. Management told us, ‘Hell no.’…You’re saying one thing, you’re doing another. I want to know what is this—is this a joke?” she said.
She continued, “If they don’t allow us to have diversity training I need you students to back us and rally for it.”
Despite concerns at the forum, the Administration has pledged to follow their suggestions, hoping to start a committee to facilitate this, consisting of senior administrators, faculty—some related to the Safety and Security Department—and two VSA-appointed students.
Administrators conceded their guilt to the report’s and students’ statements. Dean of the College Christopher Roellke said, “It’s very clear tonight…that we have failed to make this place as inclusive as it needs to be. I take responsibility.”
President Hill echoed these apologies. She said, “I’m sorry we haven’t done enough. We are committed to being better.”