When protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in June, Director of Campus Safety Rick Tanksley sent an email June 22 to the Occidental community in response to Floyd’s death and nationwide calls to reinvent policing. Tanksley said he supported the email Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot sent to the student body May 29 in response to Floyd’s killing, but that he wanted to add his own statement as well. Tanksley’s statement posed questions about ways Campus Safety could achieve greater transparency and improve their relationship with the Occidental community.
“I’m a Black man, I have Black children. I have a Black son,” Tanksley said. “I could have left the Dean of Student’s statement as is, and that would have been great. But I felt that given my experience both as a police executive and as a Black man growing up in America, adding my voice to the many voices that were being heard on campus [was important].”
Campus Safety provides emergency services and security, including securing doors to campus buildings at night, responding to noise complaints, and responding to students in crisis, according to Tanksley. All officers are unarmed and the college calls on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division when needed, according to Campus Safety’s website.
Tanksley said he wants to change Campus Safety titles from “officer” to something like “representative” and he wants to change the uniforms so they no longer resemble police uniforms. Tanksley also opted to change his title from “chief” to “director” when he accepted the position in 2018, in order to create a greater distinction between Campus Safety and police forces.
Tanksley said he wants to include the community in these ongoing Campus Safety changes and one way to do that is through the Campus Safety Advisory Committee. The goal of the committee is to hear community concerns and ideas in relation to safety and quality of life on campus, according to Tanksley. In early 2016, the previous Campus Safety chief requested the formation of the committee, which has met somewhat infrequently since its creation, according to cognitive science and philosophy professor Saul Traiger, who was on the committee before going on sabbatical.
However, Tanksley said the committee has not met yet this semester because he was waiting for a student representative from the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) to be confirmed. He also is hoping for another student outside of student government to join the committee.
Lena Sullivan (sophomore) is the ASOC senator newly assigned to be the representative on the committee. She said she has concerns about being the liaison because she is a white student, but she took the role because Senate struggles to fill roles on all the committees they are supposed to.
“Especially at this deeply important time in organizing around policing and race, I think that I, as a white student, am not the best choice to serve on this committee,” Sullivan said via email. “I think it’s very important that students of color, especially Black students at Oxy, have a key voice in decisions around Campus Safety. I would be more than willing to give up my seat in CSAC [Campus Safety Advisory Committee] to make that happen.”
Sullivan said one of the recommendations from the 2015 Occupation was that the committee have two representatives, with at least one from the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB). Sullivan said that when she asked DEB members who were present at their Oct. 8 meeting about this recommendation, multiple members said they did not know they were supposed to have a representative on the committee.
The conversation surrounding the relationship between Campus Safety and students is not new. Tanksley said he notices the somewhat strained relationship when walking around campus.
“When we walk through the quad and we say hi to someone and they just look away — why is that? Is that because they don’t know who I am? Or because I’m a Campus Safety officer and they don’t want to talk to me?” Tanksley said.
Traiger said changing the uniform and titles of Campus Safety are steps in the right direction. He said that taking these steps will further the distinction between Campus Safety and a police department.
“These titles really matter because they are potentially misleading. And wearing a uniform with a badge sends a message. Someone might see a badge and think, ‘Oh, this individual may be carrying a weapon,’” Traiger said.
Wafa Abedin (senior), former ASOC vice president of internal affairs, said that when she was a member of Senate, they would hear four or five complaints about Campus Safety per semester. Some of these included students saying they complained directly to Campus Safety, only to have their complaints dismissed. Abedin said she does not recall students of color complaining more to Senate about Campus Safety than white students, but there is a perception that Campus Safety is similar to law enforcement.
“There’s a general assumption or perception of campus safety [as law enforcement] and individual students have had minor experiences with Campus Safety that gives people the wrong impression. And then Oxy students talk,” Abedin said.
Abedin was on the Campus Safety Advisory Committee for a year and a half. When she first joined the committee, she was the only student on it. According to Abedin, ASOC Senate worked with Campus Safety to host an event for students to get to meet officers, and no one showed up.
“Normally everyone goes to events that have free food, especially when it’s from Spitz. But no one showed up to the event,” Abedin said. “I think that really speaks to how difficult it’s been to reshape Campus Safety’s relationship with the Oxy community.”
Tanksley and Traiger both said that improving the relationship between Campus Safety and the Occidental community is a challenge the committee is trying to address. Traiger said Campus Safety officers doing more walking and bike patrols, as opposed to sitting in their vehicles, may be a way to connect with Occidental students. Traiger also said that teaching students first-responder skills could help Campus Safety to educate and connect with the community. Tanksley said he wants people to know Campus Safety officers as individuals and for students to feel comfortable enough to report misconduct.
“If a campus safety officer or representative makes a mistake, or someone is dissatisfied with the type of service that we have provided, they can bring that complaint directly to me or to the Dean of Students. We welcome that input,” Tanksley said.
Abedin said another way to improve the relationship between Campus Safety and the student body may be ensuring students know their rights as they pertain to Campus Safety. Policies such as the Amnesty Policy are in place to encourage students to report dangerous situations to Campus Safety without fear of disciplinary action.
Tanksley said he has high hopes for improving the relationship between Campus Safety and the Occidental community through the advisory committee and encouraging Campus Safety to connect with students on a regular basis.
“People’s perceptions are hard, they can be hard to break through. But I think common ground can be gained once people know who we are and what we stand for, and also hold us to [those standards],” Tanksley said.
This article was revised Nov. 12 at 12:27 p.m. to correct that the event to introduce students to Campus Safety was hosted and organized by ASOC Senate, not Campus Safety.