Ace Conyers isn’t the typical South Carolina State University student. His father is the university’s president.
But that connection hasn’t always kept Conyers feeling comfortable on campus. He remembers a particularly helpless moment during his freshman year. It was his first night on campus. He was playing music and sitting outside of Earle, a male dorm for freshmen. The sounds drew in a few other freshmen, each one eager to meet new people.
Campus police weren’t as jovial. They issued him a citation for playing music too loudly outside. Later on, staff removed the judicial affair — a formal acknowledgment of policy violation — from his record.
There aren’t any rules against playing music outside, said Conyers, now a senior. He felt stereotyped under the watchful eye of the officers.
“It feels like we’re in a cage, no matter what we do,” he said.
Conyers’ sentiments are an all-too common feeling for Black people. The tension is heightened at historically Black colleges and universities, full of students who have grown up in a country where police brutality is frequent.
This hits particularly close to home at some HBCUs. In 2015, a North Charleston police officer killed an unarmed Walter Scott about an hour from Orangeburg, where South Carolina State is located. The 1968 Orangeburg Massacre — in which state troopers killed three men and wounded hundreds of others — took place on the university’s campus.
At three Southern HBCUs, campus police chiefs are working to remake the relationship with students.
The strategy they are relying on is called community policing. The practice encourages partnerships and relationships between law enforcement officers and the community they serve.
For Rodney Demery, police chief at Grambling State University, that comes down to being a regular presence on campus. He encourages his officers to bond with students, a strategy he introduced to the department in 2022.
“Our policing philosophy is we treat our students like they’re our own children,” said Demery, who has worked in law enforcement for 35 years, mainly in predominantly Black areas such as Shreveport, Louisiana.
“There’s always that initial hesitation with the police. The population has always been a little standoffish from police departments, for obvious reasons. But I think my method has always worked pretty well,” Demery said. “Once people or the community get to know the police officers, then things kind of run a lot smoother.”
Ja’Quel Brooks, Student Government Association president at Grambling, says that the approach is evident on campus.
“With Chief and his staff being out engaging with the students, joking, talking, and advocating, it has begun the steps to new ways of protecting Grambling,” Brooks said.
It’s not strange to hear Claflin University students holler “Hey unc!” as they see interim Police Chief Melvin Williams around campus. He considers it a testament to the department’s community policing approach embraced three years ago.
In his 43-year career in policing, Williams has also spent time at Bethune-Cookman University and Harris-Stowe State University. He arrived at Claflin in August 2020.
Campus police officers have to be patient and tolerant toward college students and “spend more time de-escalating,” Williams said.
That approach is vital, said Conyers, who is the president of the Campus Activity Board. College students are seeking new experiences, and sometimes, that might mean pushing boundaries.
“You might catch a college kid being drunk, you might catch a college kid being high — that’s just what college kids do,” he said.
Timothy Taylor, the police chief at South Carolina State, understands that perspective. Taylor took over the department in March 2022.
Officers generally won’t bother students about things like playing music on campus, he said. If it’s too loud, they may ask a student to turn it down. “But at the end of the day, we have to realize that we are dealing with college students,” he said.
Scrutinizing police authority
While the dynamic may be changing on some campuses, HBCU students remain at the forefront of calls to reduce overpolicing. That’s the case in Atlanta, where HBCU students have protested against the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, known as “Cop City,” Capital B Atlanta reported.
Spelman College’s president, Helene Gayle, in February voiced support for the student protestors and clarified that the college isn’t helping fund “Cop City.”
“In this case, our students’ activism is bringing attention to what are ongoing issues that need to be addressed: police misuse of authority and misuse of force, casualties that can be prevented and building trust between the communities that law enforcement are entrusted to serve and protect,” she said.
Building that trust means that HBCU campus police must be sensitive to the historical trauma between law enforcement and people of color, said Melba Pearson, who works in the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
“It’s sort of that vicarious trauma every single time. You hear about this and you’re like, ‘Man, it could be me, it could be my brother, it could be my sister,’” Pearson said.
Pearson also recommends open discussions between officers and the students, such as panels and forums.
“Another way to meld that gap is to have frank discussions with officers and students,” Pearson said. “I think having that frank and open discussion will really help to defuse or de-escalate tensions between officers and Black students,” she said.
Those discussions are already happening at Grambling. Student groups often ask the campus police department to speak about safety concerns, including sexual assault, drug use, and domestic violence. Recently, the department held a forum on policing in America after a student requested it.
Brooks said one of the most intriguing parts of the conversation “was about the well-being and elevation of our youth in Black communities.” Officers implored students to be intentional in their efforts to avoid negative influences on and around campus.
South Carolina State held a community-policing panel in February. Local and campus law enforcement officials encouraged students to seek relationships with them. And, the department held what Taylor hopes was the first of many annual kickball games in an attempt to better create a rapport with students.
“Community policing in the 21st century — if you’re not doing it, you’re not going to win in law enforcement,” he said.
Conyers believes the onus is on the police to carry themselves rightly, regardless of their standing with students. He raised that concern during the community-policing panel.
“As a citizen, I should not oblige myself to be nice to you,” he said. ‘You should just do your job.”
This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalBNews.