After sitting in on an Examining Diversity through Film class last spring, Plattsburgh State University Police Chief Jerry Lottie recognized an opportunity to further incorporate his officers into the community.

PSUC University Police officers are currently participating in courses offered by the Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion, taught by director J.W. Wiley and his team of TAs and rotating faculty participants. Officers and students come together in conversation-based classes with the aim of analyzing and breaking down social, racial and gender barriers.

The initiative took hold after Lottie and former University Police Chief Arlene Sabo accepted Wiley’s invitation to participate in a class last year.

“We started working much more closely with them and got comfortable enough to have the audacity to ask Arlene and Jerry, two gun-toting people, if they would join us for the conversation and they did,” Wiley said. “Beyond that, they came up with the idea that it would benefit their officers too.”

These courses are based on a three-pronged design focusing on general education, student leadership development and professional development. More than 50 faculty have rotated through them the past 11 years in an effort to gain and strengthen a diverse campus perspective.

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Lottie has the same goal for officers.

“One of the things that is very important to me is community policing, and I want our folks to be engaged in all parts of the community,” Lottie said.
Although officers are not graded like students, they are a part of the class in every other aspect.

“They’re fully participating with us,” CDPI staff assistant Lauren Gonyea said. ”They are doing the readings, they’re coming to class prepared, they are able to participate in the discussions that we’re having, and when they feel comfortable they’re able to make a contribution to the discussion.”

Because the classes are divided into themes, officers join the classes during certain themes, not necessarily at the beginning of the course. The course is currently in the third theme — race.

“A lot of it has to do with timing,” Wiley said. “The fact that we’ve had the chance to develop chemistry with our students, and our students trust us, by the time that this uniformed officer joins us in a conversation, I don’t think it could be as problematic as if they were sitting there on the very first day of class.”

Lottie said he encourages officers to attend classes in uniform as a way to reinforce their presence and show other class participants that police are working toward the same goals.

At a time when tensions are high between citizens and law enforcement in areas of the country such as Missouri and Maryland, Wiley said having the officers in uniform while in class is significant.

“It’s also really nice that we have a uniformed officer sitting with us in class during our race theme with everything that’s going on right now — the Black Lives Matter issues and the disconnects in communities between cops and the citizenry. It’s a good thing,” Wiley said.

Both Wiley and Lottie said they believe the inclusion of officers in these courses will benefit the police department and the community.

“Anything (officers) plug into, they’re going to go deeper than if they hadn’t taken the class. Each of the themes are really engaging people’s identity,” Wiley said. “It makes you reflect on how you respond to or engage these identities. It works on so many different levels.”

Lottie said he also believes the courses will foster a better relationship between the campus community and officers.

“I hope that our officers take away a broader sense of our campus community and what our community is looking for from our police department,” Lottie said. “But I also hope that our students and faculty and staff who are at the training also walk away with a better understanding of university police.”

Including officers in diversity-based courses is a concept that is unique to PSUC, and is one that both Wiley and Lottie would like to see continued in the future. Wiley said seeing this trend develop on other college campuses would be a welcomed result of PSUC’s initiative.

“Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” he said. “It would be nice for some other schools to get wind of what we’re doing and run with it. I think this class that we teach should be taught on every SUNY campus because I don’t think there’s any other class like it.”

Email Thomas Marble at news@cardinalpointsonline.com

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