In order to push for more transparency in Pitt police, students should “keep pushing” for answers from those in “access and power,” according to Kathryn Fleisher, a senior and Student Government Board member.
“I think if we have concerns and we want to see policing done in a different kind of way, we can’t just ask the question and hope we get an answer,” Fleisher, a politics and philosophy and gender, sexuality and women’s studies double major, said. “We need people to keep showing up and being part of those efforts.”
Student Affairs hosted a town hall on Thursday evening via Zoom to reflect on transparency within Pitt police, as well as addressing student concerns relating to the Pitt police. Chief of Pitt police James Loftus attended the event, along with Sgt. Brooke Riley and officer Guy Johnson. Morgan Pierce, a second year Ph.D. student in the history department, moderated the event.
Many in attendance asked about the Pitt police’s budget and if defunding the department and moving those funds to another resource is possible. Loftus said the Chancellor’s Public Safety Advisory Council will release the police’s budget, but didn’t give a specific date. He said the department had a 13% reduction in funding from Pitt this year, but isn’t being entirely defunded.
Loftus added that if Pitt were to defund campus police, reallocating those funds should be done “objectively and empirically” to places such as the University Counseling Center.
“I think it has to be a scientific, mathematical process. And if someone decides to take money from the police department and allocate it towards the counseling center, that’s fine,” Loftus said. “If someone decides to expand the police budget so that the police department can fund counselors that would ride with our officers and go to mental health calls, that’s absolutely fine as well.”
The event’s participants also discussed Pitt police’s use of guns on campus. Pelumi Olugbenga, a graduate student studying energy and environment in the School of Public and Internal Affairs, expressed concern about officers carrying guns on campus when it isn’t necessary.
“One of the things I’ve heard from students is the fact that most times in terms of how certain areas are kind of weaponized,” Olugbenga, who also serves as president of the Pan-African Graduate and Professional Association, said. “For instance, in the library [Pitt police] just come in with guns, and a lot of students feel uncomfortable seeing guns inside the library. So what can people do to address that if there are no immediate threats?”
In response, Loftus said it would be “dangerous” to “exclude” officers from going into certain areas of University property. He also said more interaction between students and police officers would help address these concerns.
“We understand that every cop in the police department is supposed to be a community service officer. We understand that everyone here is supposed to be engaging and talk to students and maybe debunk some of the concerns and fears that students and other people have on campus,” Loftus said. “That’s what I expect of everyone who works here. I’m realistic enough to know that not all of our staff deliver on that concern, so I think it’s by enhanced interactions that we debunk some of those problems. Community interaction has never been more important in the history of law enforcement than in this year.”
David Harris, a professor in the School of Law, said many students express to him “some degree of frustration” about a lack of communication about public safety from different departments and administrators. Harris, who also serves as chairperson to the Chancellor’s Public Safety Advisory Council, said there were many conversations among students about public safety, but many of these concerns weren’t communicated to administrators.
Alongside student leaders, Harris helped form a Committee on Student-focused Public Safety and Concern to spread information more effectively. According to Harris, the committee’s plan is to allow student groups to nominate student representatives, who will bring those concerns to the committee. Harris also said the CSPSC will become a “permanent group” on campus, and will fully function by early next fall.
“This group as we envision it will meet regularly with a designated group of students who are members of the public safety advisory council,” Harris said. “So we envision a regular set of meetings, communication and so forth directly to the public safety advisory council and from there, directly into the highest levels of the University administration.”
Fleisher said they aimed to provide a space for Pitt’s marginalized communities with the CSPSC, such as Black, Latinx, disabled, Jewish, Asian and LGBTQ+ students as well as students with mental health issues and those involved in sexual assault awareness.
“We want to ensure in a proactive manner that students who are part of those communities or who identify with those communities are able to have access, representation, answers, etc.,” Fleisher said.
To close out the meeting, Pierce said it’s important to keep having these conversations and to build trust between police and the community they serve.
“It’s important to keep having these conversations to continue to try to build trust and to recognize that we need to rethink the way we do public safety,” Pierce said. “And how we can do that — how we can be better.”