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Public Safety convenes advisory committee as part of University-wide call to address systemic racism

Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has convened a committee of faculty, undergraduates, administrators, and graduate students to provide feedback, advice, and suggestions for how the Department can best serve the University community.

The Public Safety Community Advisory Committee is chaired by Dean for Diversity and Inclusion LaTanya Buck and Professor of Anthropology Laurence Ralph, whose research focuses on police violence against Black and brown communities. The committee consists of three faculty members, three graduate students, three undergraduate students, and three administrators. Three staff members from PSAFE also sit with the committee in liaison positions.

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The committee held its first meeting about three weeks ago, according to Assistant Vice President for Public Safety Paul Ominsky.

In an op-ed for The Daily Princetonian, Ominsky wrote that he convened this committee as part of a “Community Caretaking” approach, which he has employed during his tenure at DPS. He added that a University-wide call to action on systemic racism precipitated the committee’s founding, and that “our entire department has spent time thinking about improving Community Caretaking.”

“Although our department works with many campus organizations and sits on numerous University committees, there has not been a specific campus community group established to think about Public Safety,” he wrote. “But we want more community feedback, and I want to respond to calls from some in the University community for changes in our department.

Ominsky told the ‘Prince’ that a major goal of the committee is “to make sure that we have a department that’s providing fair, just, and unbiased services to the University.”

“It’s an area where, based on what’s going on nationally, there’s a really distinct moment in time around the profession of policing or public safety work, where I think it’s really important to get feedback from the community,” he added.

Buck emphasized a similar point.

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“This goal aligns with how I understand what it means to engage our work through an intentional equity lens,” she wrote in a statement. “We must have a pulse on campus climate, acknowledge differing experiences of those in contact with DPS, and have a keen awareness of who our many communities are to better understand and address needs, concerns, and safety.”

As Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, Buck added that she hopes to “bring a perspective that centers the student experience and considers their lived experiences, identities, backgrounds, communities, etc. within and beyond Princeton’s community.”

Jailany Thiaw ’22, one of three undergraduate members, alongside KiKi Gilbert ’21 and Toussaint Webb ’22, felt that the goal of the committee is “to orient Princeton’s policing model around one that protects its student body, all of its student body … making sure that DPS is serving all parts of the student body fairly.”

Thiaw is a Black Leadership Coalition (BLC) organizer on campus, Gilbert serves as a co-president of Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR), and Webb is president of the Princeton Black Men’s Association (PBMA).

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“Myself and the other undergraduates on the board hold a particular perspective into what those [undergraduate-centered] spaces actually look like, what are the conversations happening [among] undergrads, how do we view DPS, how do we view University disciplinary bodies,” Thiaw said.

“I’m hoping to bring not only the perspective of myself, but the perspective of all of the other undergrads with whom I communicate,” he added.

Master of Public Affairs (MPA) student Wendy Gomez, one of the three graduate students on the committee, alongside Classics student Jael Hernandez-Vasquez and Molecular Biology student Gabriel Moore, also emphasized how the committee’s work fits in the context of today’s world, coming “in response to a lot of the actions that we saw this summer around the country and around police reform, racial justice, and then how they translate it onto campus.”

“Police, as a form and as a structure, is deeply rooted in a racist history in the United States, and a very violent history [against Black people], so I think this can’t be detached from that,” Gomez added.

Over the summer, Gomez and more than 450 students and alumni of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) graduate program submitted a series of demands to the School, calling for anti-racist action — which included defunding of DPS.

“We drafted demands that specifically asked for abolition of campus police, and you have undergrad groups like SPEAR that have been advocating for similar things for years,” she said.

Gomez was hopeful about the committee’s mission, though questioned how much impact committee members will have.

“From an idealistic perspective, this is our North Star,” Gomez said. “Campus activists were calling for the abolition and to truly reimagine what Public Safety looks like.”

“I also am skeptical, though, that this school, like a lot of other higher ed institutions, likes to respond to issues [of racial justice] with committees that take years, and sometimes demands that are put forth by students are drowned out,” she added.

Ominsky told the ‘Prince’ that he is pleased with the feedback DPS received through an online form and email communication. He said he is optimistic about the Community Advisory Committee’s impacts on community caretaking, the future of public safety, and institutional transparency.

Thiaw said, “in an ideal world for me, I would be curious to figure out a way that we can establish a policing model that does work.” He hopes to have “Princeton be [an institution that] can guide other policing departments on how to reorient themselves, restructure themselves, reform themselves, towards that better model.”

The faculty and administrative members of the committee include Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs Patrick Sharkey, Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs Jonathan Mummolo, Mathey College Director of Student Life Darleny Cepin, and Associate Director of Counseling & Psychological Services Jonathan Pastor.

DPS Director of Operations Kenneth Strother Jr., Associate Director of Support Services Duncan Harrison, and Patrol Sergeant Sean Ryder serve as Public Safety Liaisons.

Ominsky encouraged community members with ideas about any aspect of DPS to contact the committee directly at PSAFECommittee@princeton.edu.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story indicated that three staff members from PSAFE were members of the committee. While these staff members “sit with” the committee, joining meetings and serving as resources for members, they are not themselves members. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.

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