- By Michael S. Dorn
- April 1st, 2006
I will never forget the extraordinarily unpleasant Sunday afternoon duty of patrolling the wall. The chancellor had implemented a distasteful and harmful practice where one unlucky university police officer would patrol the campus boundary wall adjacent to a city park every Sunday afternoon during the summer, to make citizens get off the wall. Since the citizens happened to almost always be African-American and the university happened to be located in the South, the racial tension this practice created was intense. One sunny afternoon, the chancellor summoned me to his office to personally scold me and threaten to have me fired because I failed to make it a priority to make hundreds of people stop leaning on the wall. As he berated me, he boasted of how, as a younger man serving as president of the university, he had personally dealt with the wall. He told me that the physical plant department would deliver a wheelbarrow of horse manure to his house every Saturday afternoon. He would then personally spread the manure along the two hundred yards or so of the wall, so people would not sit on it. I recall being dumbstruck that this man had a law degree and had served as president of not just one, but two highly regarded universities.
The tension was thick between the community, our police department and the university. I imagined a serious incident would take place if anyone ever challenged what we were doing. While we could legally remove a person from that wall, a major incident could develop from any arrest ever attempted for refusal to step away from the wall.
Fortunately, I realized that the chancellor’s memory was not the best when he failed to call my chief to have me fired the following Monday. When I talked with another sergeant about the matter, she pointed out that the elderly chancellor frequently seemed to display a faulty memory. The next Sunday, we took the bold step of not following our department’s long-standing directive of making people get off the wall. This had always been a rather futile endeavor anyway, as the poor soul selected for the duty would find him- or herself pathetically walking back and forth all afternoon making the same people get off the wall, only to tell them to get off the wall again 20 minutes later. To make matters worse, every officer in the department knew that the practice was blatantly racist.
When we simply stopped reporting for the duty each Sunday, no one seemed to notice except the chancellor, who would periodically call to rant, rave and call us to his office to chew us out. But he never remembered to complain on Monday — or was ignored by the president — and the practice ceased to exist.
In hindsight, it seems ludicrous that such a practice still existed in the early 1980s. It also surprises me to recall how easy the solution to this problem turned out to be. I honestly don’t know if, at the age of 21, I would have had the courage to fight had there been a real battle with my career in the balance. While I knew I could face a problem and possibly could have been fired for insubordination, I also realized that it was unlikely that the chancellor would remember to start the process in the first place.
Campus safety officials have many ethical battles to fight. Campus officials at one state university some years ago were able to pressure a university police chief to have his officers attempt to cover up the murder of a student by a basketball player by ruling the death an accident. Fortunately, some officers in the department could not live with such a blatant act of corruption, and they notified local criminal justice officials. The reputation of the institution and the university police department suffered immeasurable harm, but a killer was brought to justice. More typically, safety directors battle to implement safety programs that people feel will create image problems, cost too much or take too much time, though they are clearly needed.
Whatever your wall is, please fight the good fight. Most professionals must assert themselves from time to time to do a good job, regardless of their profession. We are all safer because of doctors, school teachers, cops, lawyers and architects that fought the good fight when they felt morally compelled to do so.
Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International Inc., an IRS-approved non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety and can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at www.safehavensinternational.org.
Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.