Racial makeup of officers matter, UPD chief says

While the demographics of the student body at Sam Houston State University do not match number-for-number those of the university police department, University Police Chief Kevin Morris said UPD reflects the community which it polices.

Morris said he does not know of any instance of racial tension on his police force.

“To my knowledge, I am not aware of any racial tensions that exist here at UPD and with our university community,” Morris said. “Over the years, our officers have worked extremely well with our campus community with outreach programs and participating with university events to develop better relationships.”

The 2014 population of SHSU, which totals 19,573, is 54.7 percent white, 17.9 percent black and 18.5 percent Hispanic. The 2014 population of UPD, which totals 24, is 91.67 percent white, 8.33 percent black and zero percent Hispanic.

On a broader scope, the Huntsville population, which totals 39,675 according to the 2010 census, is 53.3 percent white, 25.4 percent black, 18.7 percent Hispanic and 1.9 percent other. Serving that community is the Huntsville Police Department which totals 57 with 80.7 percent white, 12.28 percent black, 5.26 percent Hispanic and 1.75 percent Pacific Islander.

“I do think that a department’s demographics should be similar to that of its population,” Morris said. “Having a similar makeup within the department that reflects your community helps establish trust and understanding. Our law enforcement authority reflects that of the community and what they allow and want our policing to reflect.”

According to Bill Wells, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Criminal Justice, one of the most important aspects for police departments to effectively serve their constituency is communication.

“I’m not sure about the most important characteristic, but open communication with all segments of the community is an important element of community policing,” Wells said. “Community policing explicitly seeks to build solid collaborations between the police and a variety of communities they serve. In terms of routine contacts between police and citizens, research shows that when police make fair decisions and treat people with dignity and respect then police are viewed as being more legitimate. This idea is known as procedurally fair policing and is very popular right now. When police are seen as being fair and legitimate then citizens are more likely to cooperate with police.”

When asked the same question, Morris concurred with Wells.

“The most important characteristic or attribute needed to effectively work within one’s community in communication,” he said. “Be able to articulate to the public what you are doing and actively listening to their concerns.”

Although Morris admitted that he did not know all the facts to say whether or not he thought the Ferguson situation could have been prevented, he did say that had protests broke out in Huntsville as they did in Missouri, UPD would have responded appropriately.

“Since we are not a large department, we would need outside assistance to assist with those types of crowds on our campus,” Morris said. “Like with any other large event, we would work very closely with the Huntsville Police Department, Walker County Sheriff’s Office, the Texas Highway Patrol, and Texas Rangers. Depending on scope, we would also contact and work with the Walker County Emergency Management coordinator for additional resources if necessary. Also, the University’s Emergency Management Team would play a crucial role in the University’s response protest. The main goal would be to make sure participants in the protest are safe, the general public is safe, and that property is protected.”

According to Wells, although events like this are not necessarily ideal situations, it is important especially for students in the department of criminal justice to learn from them in order to become fair and objective law enforcement officers in the future.

“It’s important to have open discussions about the lessons we’ve learned from similar situations that have occurred dating back to the 1960s,” Wells said. “We are still learning these lessons today. These kinds of discussions can create opportunities for students to think critically about these events and look at the events from many different perspectives. Hopefully this kind of perspective and thinking will help students become well-rounded police officers.”

Senior reporter Connor Hyde and Campus Culture editor Sean Smith contributed to this report. 

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