The key to addressing this contentious issue is delivering proactive and positive outreach to all students, faculty, staff and administration, irrespective of their national origin or political orientation.
President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, currently being reviewed in the courts, continues the debate, often raucous, that began during his presidential campaign.
Many opponents of the president’s plan to further limit immigration on a temporary basis and intensify immigrant vetting have declared their cities, counties and even some college campuses and school districts as sanctuaries for immigrants. How these decisions affect the flow of federal funding to governments and schools that defy the order and existing federal statutes under the new president remains to be seen. Even on campuses that have not declared themselves to be sanctuaries, the issue is being hotly debated. Campuses with large enrollments of international students have seen protests, and many international students are uncertain of their futures and those of their families — families that currently reside in the United States and families still living abroad but who want to come to the United States to escape the strife and injustice in their homelands.
While the debate rages, campus public safety officials may be torn between competing directions and priorities that affect the maintenance of security on campus: to obey the directives by college administrative officials to not cooperate with federal law enforcement activities and not ask about immigration status of people with whom police interact; the need to deter and interdict terrorist and criminal activities; and the need to discharge their sworn oath to enforce laws fairly and impartially and to defend the Constitution of the United States. This last mission includes protecting all campus citizens from threats generated by misunderstanding or hate, irrespective of whether it’s generated by religious, political or national zealotry at any end of the ideological spectrum.
The purpose of this essay is not to support or critique Trump’s order or to prescribe tactics for dealing with protesters. Instead, it is to provide a perspective and a coherent rationale for addressing this issue with behaviors that are prudent, fair, effective and defensible.
Don’t Ignore the Potential for Radicalization
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), with students, faculty and staff from 180 countries, is the ninth most diverse institution of higher education in the nation. Even for campuses with smaller numbers of international students, it would be imprudent to believe some students are not sympathetic to ISIS or al-Qaida. It would be a gross injustice to presume that every student from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen is a terrorist, but it would be equally irresponsible to assume that no campus community member has any terrorist sympathies and the will to act on them. What we do know is that foreigners, especially those alone in a new culture and cut off from families and friends, tend to seek ties to the homeland. Both al-Qaida and ISIS have sophisticated outreach programs and actively attempt to radicalize and recruit those who are not already adherents to their cause. These efforts have met with some success, and the possibility of radicalized persons on campus cannot be discounted.
At the same time, campus police cannot focus only on foreign students. Many opponents to the Trump administration’s immigration (and other) policies are native-born Americans. While radicalization is a lesser concern with this latter group, the image they hold of police can either exacerbate or moderate protests and citizen-police interactions on campus.
The concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances are not practiced throughout much of the world. In many countries, police are attached to a strong executive whose actions are relatively unimpeded by an independent legislature and judiciary. In short, police are seen as an extension, a club if you will, of a dictator, and there is little apparent differentiation between the ruler and the enforcers.
One key concept we as police officers in the United States must reiterate is that we do not make the laws; we only implement laws passed by accountable representatives in a (hopefully) transparent process. Further, we must demonstrate that our enforcement is done fairly, impartially and without malice since we are charged with protecting our campuses not only from international and domestic terror but also protecting international students from domestic hatred. To the extent those tasked with campus safety and security are seen as fair and impartial, we can be viewed as accessible partners to whom all campus citizens, including international students, can report their concerns about illegalities and mistreatment. They may even identify isolated international students who have become radicalized and who are in need of assistance.
Officers Must Also Protect International Students’ Rights
A second point we must make is about our twin mission of protecting and serving. Old-school street cops tend to focus largely on protecting, and the citizens they protect are content with safe streets. In fact, according to this old school point of view, safe streets are exactly the “service” citizens want. Campus officers must also protect against criminal and terrorist threats, as argued above, but the focus of attention is more on service; specifically community outreach, access control, motorist assists, training, etc.
However, this is a limited view of the service campus public safety provides. We need to convince those we serve that our service also — and perhaps more importantly — includes protecting their constitutional freedoms, such as speech, religion, press and assembly. Efforts must be made to identify and explain the differences between a person’s rights during consensual, investigatory and custodial encounters.
It is surprising how limited the interactions are between Americans and their police. Most Americans don’t understand what policing is or what cops do, apart from what they may observe watching crime dramas on TV, which often generate unrealistic expectations, display behavior that police agencies would never tolerate, etc. Many foreigners and Americans have never observed these limitations on police actions so they are unaware they exist.
Also, the existence of police complaint procedures identifying where and how to report unprofessional police behavior often surprises critics with a jaundiced view of the police. An active outreach program can do much to calm the perspectives of protestors so their fear and/or abhorrence of police do not become self-fulfilling prophecies of conflict.
Community Awareness of U.S. Police Practices Is Key
As already noted, we should tell the campus community that if we are not investigating a crime or dealing with someone we have probable cause to believe has committed or is about to commit a crime, the stop is consensual and individuals are not required to talk with us. This protection is incredible to many foreign born. One might wonder whether anyone would ever speak to the police if told they didn’t have to in such circumstances. What is important to note is that if the police engage in community outreach, service, training and other responsible and accountable behaviors, we will be viewed as partners in keeping the campuses safe and not the originators of behaviors perceived by protestors to be odious.
A second point of education for both young Americans and foreign-born campus community members is that even if we must engage someone in conversation beyond the consensual level, we have officer discretion, so an arrest is not necessarily mandatory. Also, when discussing the interactions between police and aliens who may be undocumented, the police usually don’t know who is documented and who is not until after the initial encounter. The revelation of this information to the police comes after an interaction occurs for some other reason; it does not generate the interaction itself. We need to make people aware of this.
Third, the community must understand that we are sworn officers of the law, and when we see a law broken with serious actual or potential consequences for the school or society at large, we are obligated to act. Now this action could result in a warning or a lesser charge, but people need to understand we might make an arrest for the greater safety of our campus or community. And even if we arrest someone, there is no guarantee that individual will be deported. What’s key is that we, as police, do not make that decision. But when we encounter those critical of our activities, we should ask if they would have us hold foreign individuals to different standards to which we hold native-born Americans (and ourselves). We should ask whether a potential deportation or other serious legal consequences resulting from our actions are justification for us to abrogate our responsibilities to the campuses and the communities we serve.
The key to addressing the police role in the contentious immigration issue is proactive and positive outreach to all students, faculty, staff and administration, no matter their national origin or political orientation. Every day, we play a key role in protecting and serving our citizens. We should not allow any lack of awareness about the positive things we do and the constitutional and self-regulating safeguards that protect them against arbitrary police actions to obscure this fact.
Daniel A. Dusseau is the chief of police for the NOVA Police Department and Lt. John Weinstein is the commander of NOVA PD’s District 3. Contact Weinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the authors are personal and should not be construed as representing an official policy of the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the NOVA Police Department, Campus Safety magazine or the Campus Safety Conferences.