Against a backdrop of escalating incidents, disparities in the relationship between law enforcement and students Black students are questioning how policing plays a role in campus communities.

In August 2023, a group of skaters at N.C. A&T said they were racially profiled and accused of drug trafficking. In October 2022, a police officer stopped a bus full of students from Shaw University on the way to a conference and insisted on a drug search. In December 2022, a Winston-Salem University student was arrested by two police officers after an apparent dispute between the professors. 

 Such incidents sparked discussions about police reform, such as broadening the makeup of police units, improving de-escalation techniques, and enhancing bias training.

[Read more: Amid national scrutiny of policing, HBCU chiefs work to remake relationships with students]

Ayanna Miller-Smith, a doctoral student at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, originally from Brooklyn, New York, has been on both sides of the spectrum. She went to both Howard University and Northwestern for her undergraduate studies. She is an expert in racial justice, policing, police-community relationships, community mechanisms of public safety, and evidence-based policy. 

Open Campus spoke with Miller-Smith about how law enforcement can look different on an HBCU campus compared to a predominantly white institution (PWI).

The conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Ayanna Miller-Smith

You grew up in New York City, which funds a large and embattled police department. How did you arrive at your research area?

Ayanna-Miller Smith:  I developed my research focus due to personal experiences within a family deeply connected to the criminal justice system. Growing up in New York City, where a significant and controversial police department operates, my mother’s role as a retired correctional officer on Rikers Island, one brother involved in policy work, and another facing repeated incarcerations sparked my interest. As a Black girl in New York City public schools, I encountered the harsh reality of the school-to-prison pipeline, experiencing hyper-criminalization. My move to New Jersey during high school revealed a stark contrast in treatment, motivating me to explore the systemic issues. After an internship at the Department of Corrections, my path intersected with the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a teenager unjustly held on Rikers Island, further influencing my research direction toward understanding and addressing the complexities of the criminal justice system.

How, in general, might policing look different on an HBCU campus than it might at a neighboring PWI?

Comparing policing on an HBCU campus like Howard to a PWI such as Northeastern, several differences stand out. One significant contrast is the level of funding and the extent of police coverage. At Howard, there might be uncertainties about whether the campus police carry firearms, while at Northeastern, armed police officers with arrest powers are standard.

The cultural and community aspects also play a role; at an HBCU, there’s an expectation that profiling and assumptions about students, as seen in incidents at other campuses, would be minimized due to the more robust sense of community. The overall experience as a student at an HBCU, like Howard, differs markedly from that at a PWI, impacting perceptions of safety and control. Additionally, the geographical location of universities in socially disadvantaged communities, often leading to community exclusion and criminalization, contributes to varying policing approaches. This contrast in priorities and methods reflects the unique characteristics of each institution.

Historically, what are some of the barriers to community-police relationships? Are there any aspects of HBCUs that might influence those?

I used to joke around and say that a lot of HBCUs are essentially in the hood.  It’s something you know, but I realized that many universities, by land and by property, are more socially disadvantaged communities because it’s cheaper for them to build there. And then simultaneously, they exclude those surrounding communities from their campuses, they exclude the people, they tell students, ‘Don’t go over there like you’re gonna get robbed.’

But this community was here before the university, then when HBCUs moved in, they criminalized the community, which also contributes to how the police have that school police as a community that makes sense. So, like, at Northeastern, for example. You know, police officers have arrest powers, and all these different controversies go on. I remember being on an HBCU campus like Howard’s campus where, you know, we have the projects right around the corner. 

How can Black students learn and understand modern policing that could be unique in relation to others in higher education? 

Black higher-education students may have unique ways of learning and understanding modern policing, mainly through direct engagement with campus security and police departments. One notable approach is establishing a dialogue with these departments to gain insights into their policies and practices. For instance, at Northeastern University, being part of an advisory board allowed students to address concerns about the campus police participating in protests in Boston. Through discussions, it was revealed that the police had an agreement with the Boston Police Department, influencing their involvement in such events. 

This dialogue helped students comprehend the decision-making process, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with it. Social media and student-led movements also played a crucial role in challenging and critiquing campus police actions. The formation of a community advisory board comprising diverse members, including students, faculty, and staff, provided a platform for open communication and addressing student concerns. The emphasis on dialogue and understanding historical trauma associated with policing underscores the importance of fostering a relationship between students and campus police based on transparency and mutual understanding.

In what ways does social media influence the view that students in higher education may view law enforcement on their respective campuses?

Social media significantly impacts how students in higher education perceive law enforcement on their campuses. Firstly, it increases the visibility of police-civilian interactions and instances of violence, providing a platform for sharing personal experiences that were previously confined to communities. Students can now easily share their stories, fostering greater awareness. Secondly, social media serves as a space for student organizing, allowing them to connect, share strategies, and learn from successful movements on other campuses. It facilitates real-time updates and communication between police departments and students, enabling dialogue and building community relationships. Moreover, it allows students to express grievances and critique campus police publicly, influencing discussions and potential policy changes. In summary, social media enhances visibility, aids in organizing efforts, facilitates dialogue, and serves as a tool for transparency in the relationship between students and law enforcement on college campuses.

Dasia Williams is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.