By Raoul Biron, Staff Writer
On Tuesday, the United Greek Association held its second annual Questions Without Cuffs workshop. Theta Chi, Sigma Alpha and Delta Xi Phi presented a town hall like forum where a panel of representatives from the UNH Police Department, Durham PD and UNH Legal Services could answer questions from students and offer insight into student’s rights.
For an hour and a half, Officers Sean Wilton from UNHPD, Steve Misek from Durham PD and UNH Legal Services Attorney Joanne Stella held an open dialogue with members of UNH Greek Life. The forum was designed to educate students at UNH about their rights and allow both students and the community’s police to voice concerns about safety and the law in Durham.
According to the United Greek Association’s President Simone Rivard, the ultimate goal for these forums is to help foster and maintain a healthy partnership between UNH’s Greek Community and Durham’s police presence.
“It’s about us being conscious of our affect on the community … We hold these events to inform ourselves and build a stronger relationship with the police,” Rivard said.
But Misek’s relationship with the Greek community hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
“There are a few Greeks who I despise in the town of Durham, I can tell you that,” Misek said. “And there are some that I love. We get a tremendous amount of respect from most of the Greeks, but some of the guys, when we’ve been there so many times and they know they’re about to be screwed so they decide to be jerks and leave us at the door.”
The town-hall style meeting certainly provided an opportunity for students to be more candid than usual with two of Durham’s uniformed police officers. Students began the meeting asking about the public’s view of the police in light of recent instances and accusations of police brutality.
“I think in a campus community especially, there is always a cause that people get upset about or are very dedicated to … You really have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s. There are always people watching what you do,” Wilton said.
“You have to realize that aside from just the students, Durham’s a well-educated town. People are well-informed … We’re already being held to a higher standard. It doesn’t affect us in the same way that it does the rest of the country,” Misek said.
Wilton said that he can only recall one use of force complaint in his two-year tenure as UNH PD officer.
Members of the audience raised questions about measures of increased accountability in police departments, including a growing movement calling for on-duty police officers to record their entire shifts on body mounted cameras.
“I think for police officers it’s a good thing. Its a good thing to start that dialogue and saying you could be recorded right now, are you keeping yourself in check, are you behaving professionally, are you motivated by biases. I think it’s going to be a really good thing in the end for our society and our police officers,” Joanne Stella said.
“I welcome the idea of a camera. Unlike most younger police officers, I want to be watched. I want people to look at my video and make sure that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When something happens, the video is going to defend me,” Misek said.
Wilton said that a campus full of students with smartphones already provides similar standards of accountability to body cameras.
“When you go on to YouTube and search UNH, you’re going to find videos of everything,” Wilton said. “We’re well aware that it’s always happening. For big weekends or events … when we have all the agencies in one room for a briefing, that’s always the last things said. ‘Remember, everyone’s got a camera. Act accordingly.’”
It surprised few in attendance that the community’s police department’s main focus for crime reduction at UNH is related to alcohol, especially in connection to events that draw larger crowds. In recent years, clashes between students and riot-gear clad police officers have become more commonplace at UNH. Wilton and Misek seemed hopeful that a calmer Cinco de Mayo in 2014 and the lack of arrests after the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory in February are a positive sign for student’s safety.
“What you didn’t see on Super Bowl night was that there were 20 cops around the corner with all of their stuff on, ready to go,” Misek said.
“We don’t want it to get that far. That’s why you didn’t see the riot stuff out for the Super Bowl. Everyone was staying safe. Thank god it was 8 degrees out, everyone wanted to be inside,” Wilton said.
Wilton stated that the first two and last two months of the academic year are when his department prepare for the highest volume of arrests and assign the most officers to parts of campus.
Representing UNH’s Legal Services, Joanne Stella went into detail about UNH’s recent adoption of a three-strike conduct policy, which if violated, results in a student’s immediate suspension.
“If you get any kind of criminal charge, violation, town ordinance, that’s a strike. If you get any disciplinary problems in a dorm, that’s a strike. If you get three strikes at any point, they suspend you immediately. If it happens in the middle of the semester you lose that tuition. It’s gone,” Stella said.
The panel members stayed unreserved through the event, telling the students that they knew that most people break the law and that a police officer’s job relies on prioritizing criminal activity they see.
“My sage advice as a lawyer of 20 years is don’t commit two crimes at once. Only violate one law at a time and you won’t get caught,” Stella said.
A defining part of the panel’s presentation was that the most important role of the police on campus and in Durham is safety.
The relationship that members of UNH’s Greek Life and Durham’s police officers are working to improve relies on students feeling that they can reach out to the police in any emergency.
“You’re better off calling for help than worrying about getting into trouble. Ultimately, your role in life is being a good person and not avoiding getting arrested,” Stella said.
Conversations without cuffs
By Raoul Biron, Staff Writer