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Courageous Conversations: How students and university police can work together

The University of Utah Public Safety Department continued the Courageous Conversation series in March with a discussion about nurturing a culture of peer intervention on campus.

Courageous Conversations started in 2021 and returned in November 2022. This month, it continued with a dialogue centered on the role community members can adopt to promote safety on campus and how University Police can assume the mantle of “peace officers.”

Twelve students attended, along with Brian Nicholls, special assistant to the chief safety officer, and Maj. Heather Sturzenegger, executive officer. The department’s new cohort of SafeU Ambassadors helped organize the event. Because Courageous Conversations can be raw and difficult, this story will not name any of the student participants.

“It’s vital for the Department of Public Safety to continue hosting and engaging in these conversations with our students to ensure we are listening to student concerns and keeping these concerns at the center of everything we do,” said Sturzenegger. “We will ensure that the conversations don’t stop here. We will act on these needs in collaboration with students.”

After building solidarity by discussing experiences that had shaped their worldviews—including their backgrounds and families, the group unpacked underlying concerns about ongoing safety issues on campus and ways they can be addressed.

An important but sometimes overlooked aspect of community safety is the ways individuals can keep each other safe by offering emotional support and sharing resources. The group discussed what is needed institutionally, culturally and individually to empower community members to ensure the safety of themselves and others.

In response to a question about whether they felt safe on campus, the students were asked to raise their hands to indicate their feelings. During the conversation, a student that has felt safe on campus asked those in the room who have felt unsafe about their perspective of personal safety and how they can be more sensitive to their safety concerns, and “use my privilege to be an ally.”

“Have situational awareness, learn about the unique safety concerns and experiences of your peers and support them in navigating campus safety resources,” one of the students responded.

The students also emphasized that they want peace officers to proactively engage in assisting students in a manner that is “person-over-problem” focused and tailored to the needs of individuals. The students said they also want to better know the officers who serve them.

One student suggested having more opportunities to engage with officers to get to know them as people, noting many students are often uncomfortable when they see a police officer in their car in full gear. Another student suggested offering more opportunities for small group discussions between students, campus police and campus security to help humanize the department.

Finally, students discussed the benefits of peer buddy systems that promote safe travel and encourage regular check-ins with one another. They also highlighted the importance of becoming educated about contemporary safety issues, such as stalking or sexual assault, listening to and validating victim-survivors, discussing these topics with friends, and learning how to build empathy for those who are struggling.

Following the conversation, the students in attendance said they are more comfortable with reaching out to Public Safety Department staff members. Sign up to attend a Courageous Conversation here.