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Who’s Afraid of Public Safety?

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(Cartoon by Kristen Tynan)

(Cartoon by Kristen Tynan)

 

Among my circle of peers, and based on rumblings I’ve picked up around campus, it seems to be most students’ collective experience that Public Safety officers take their positions too seriously, and that their minds are somewhat calcified against the “special needs of students.” In fact, some would say that Public Safety has set a precedent of abusing its authority and is decidedly more stringent than fair. Why do people say this? Well, many have had negative encounters with Public Safety officers— myself included—but before I get into the specifics of this gripe, I should point out that Public Safety is a necessary department here at Drew. I applaud the PS officers for committing themselves to maintaining a safe environment on this campus, and I am indebted to them for this. If ever I have a medical emergency or need some kind of assistance, I know I can depend on PS to come to my aid. With that being said, there are still some issues that need to be addressed.

For example, last Spring semester my two friends and I were returning to our dorm from a late-night bowling event in downtown Madison. It was about a quarter-of-twelve in the morning when we came upon the path leading from the front of Sitterly House to the center of campus. Not intoxicated, but perhaps a little bubbly with cheer, I decided to pull an immature hijink and hide behind a tree that was situated maybe, at most, 30 feet from Sitterly House. When my friends were about 10 yards in front of me, clueless that I had tracked behind, I jumped out and began to briskly stride toward them. Cue the two-tone police siren.

An unmarked PS patrol car had pulled up in front of me right when I was crossing the path, at which point two officers stepped out and commanded me to put my hands on the hood of the vehicle. I complied. One officer frisked me, asking me what was in my left pant pocket. “My keys,” I said in reply. At this point, my friends had come back and were witnessing the ordeal. I was asked for my student ID number, after which I was ordered to give the officer my ID card. I complied. Once he confirmed with a murky voice on his walkie-talkie that I was a full-time student, the officer patted me down and asked me what I was doing. His partner watching quietly, I told them that I had just returned from a social engagement and that I had hidden behind a tree to surprise my friends. Nothing wrong with some good old tomfoolery, right? The officer who frisked me accused me of having been in the Sitterly House and demanded to know what I was doing in there. “Nothing, because I wasn’t in there,” I said. When one of my friends tried to politely inform the officer I was not doing anything bad or out of the ordinary, the officer curtly barked, “This doesn’t concern you!” The officer repeatedly accused me of lying to him, claiming that he saw me run down the steps of the Sitterly House. I politely refuted his statement, telling him I was behind a tree—given that he was no more than 20 feet away in his car when he saw me run out, I thought he would have been able to clearly tell where I was at the time. Still sticking to his you-were- in-Sitterly-doing-something-bad routine, the officer turned to his silent partner and asked him if they should “bring me in.” Sensibly, his partner said, “No, let’s let him go.” To this day I cannot understand why they would even consider “bringing me in” for running out from behind a tree. Who knows, maybe they had been watching some Dirty Harry movies and felt that macho itch to fight crime.

This wasn’t the only time PS was on my case. They also recently threatened to charge me with theft for something that, well, didn’t really count as theft at all (interestingly, when my roommate tried to defend me in this case, they also sharply rebuked him with the evasion, “This doesn’t concern you!”). On a somewhat different note, it should probably also be mentioned that PS officers sometimes tend to amass more force than they need for relatively minor situations. Case in point, when one of my friends lightly injured his ankle last semester, at least a dozen PS officers and officials came to his aid on the call. It kind of reminded me of that part in The Dark Knight Rises, when Commissioner Gordon sends all the police and tactical units into Bane’s underground lair and then there are none left to monitor the city. Or maybe I’m just overreacting?

Here’s my point: I acknowledge the good that Public Safety officers do here at Drew, and I am not trying to belittle the importance of their services—certainly they do a good enough job of it themselves. I am simply trying to suggest that when students complain about PS officers being unfair, it generally isn’t the restless and desultory whining of ungrateful, spoiled snobs. Seeing as we take seminars here in college, maybe PS officers should be required to attend seminars of their own on how to interact civilly with students. Then again, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.