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Unique Collaboration

Campus police and ACLU team up

The Bridgewater State University Police are leading the way in adopting what’s being described as a groundbreaking racially just policing model. 

The initiative is a product of the department’s partnership with the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“It was an amazing collaboration,” BSU Police Chief David Tillinghast said. “This was an attempt to be more proactive.” 

The initiative is geared to public higher education but broadly applicable to law enforcement in general. Recommendations include establishing a police-community advisory group and training officers to self-correct perceived or actual biases. Departments are called upon to increase transparency by reporting on their actions (including demographic data) and facilitating community reviews of policies. 

The model also recommends establishing a mental health and support services team to handle, whenever appropriate, mental and behavioral health or substance-use issues. If someone reports suspicious activity, officers and dispatchers will be expected to first gather more information in order to dispatch the appropriate kind of assistance. 

The model was developed on the heels of incidents across the country where people were falsely identified as suspicious largely because of their race. BSU stood out as a willing partner as the ACLU sought to help police eliminate biases and rethink their responses, said Rahsaan Hall, ACLU racial justice program director. 

“I hope the mindset and ethos of policing that currently exists throughout the country in departments large and small shifts from punishment-oriented to one that is more supportive of community needs,” Hall said. 

Development of the model began before the murder of George Floyd, which ignited protests around the country about policing. But Floyd’s death caused the group to see the work in a new light, Tillinghast said. 

“I said ‘I don’t think it necessarily goes far enough,’” he recalled. “We really had to take a step back from the process we were already engaged in to take into account what happened.” 

Some discussions focused on when and to what extent a police response is warranted. Agencies often operate automatically and send enough officers to handle potential escalations. 

“What if police were empowered to say, these are situations where we’re going to take a little pause?” Tillinghast said. “We’ll maybe respond in some alternate way.” 

While Tillinghast is committed to bringing the full model to BSU, he would like many institutions to incorporate at least some recommendations. 

The ACLU’s Hall agrees. 

“Our hope is if and when institutions adopt these model policies that policing interactions, to the extent there are any, are less hostile and less problematic, particularly for people of color on campuses,” he said. 

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