As part of ongoing efforts to better serve the vast University of Utah campus community, the Department of Public Safety is restructuring.
This includes, once again, using the name Department of Public Safety to reflect the wide scope of divisions that make up the department: University Police, Crime Victim Advocates, Campus Security, Emergency Management, U Health Security and Emergency Communications.
Another key piece of the shift is campus police officers may now also be referred to as peace officers. Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires said it’s a return to the core values he learned as he graduated from the Utah State Police Academy in 1987. His certificate read “Peace Officer.”
“I want our officers to experience their service to help others in the same way I have throughout my career,” Squires said. “Being identified as peace officers by the senior administrators of our department allows all who serve here to know they are empowered to find the best ways every day to keep all members of our community safe and help protect them from harm.”
While it may seem like a small change, language matters, Squires said. The term “peace officer” communicates to the campus community the numerous ways officers can provide help and support. It also provides a regular reminder to officers of the role they play as members of our university community.
“That description of my role in our society is meaningful,” said Squires. “It has guided me in the situations I’ve responded to and in how I’ve been able to help those in need throughout my career. We are here to keep the peace and prevent members of our community from being harmed.”
The latest updates reflect the natural tension that flows from academic conversations about free speech and protest, appropriate use of force and the best ways to integrate safety services on a college campus. For example, some professors and students expect class spaces and discussions to be private and do not want officers wearing tactical vests and body cameras in classrooms. Still others—police reform advocates and officers themselves— want the accountability the recordings provide.
Tactical gear worn by university police is another point of campus debate. Some community members are worried the heavy vests make officers’ presence more threatening, while officers want the ergonomic benefit of how the weight of the gear is distributed on their body and the physical protection it provides them when they must face those who would commit assault.
The use of the term “peace officer” was common from the 1800s to the 1960s to refer to law enforcement—from town constables and marshals to state troopers and sheriffs. For some, it may evoke a sense of protection and service. For others, it will not be immediately viewed as a change in “policing” practices that turned violent against marchers during the civil rights movement, and more recently, the violent murders of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and others.
Bridging that gap is the responsibility of the university’s Department of Public Safety and the opportunity in partnership with Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion, said Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion.
“We have worked closely with the U police division and have witnessed incredible change, and we will remain active in our engagement of meaningful and difficult conversations with university public safety leaders to build trust and collaboration,” Villarreal said.
Some campus community members may feel the new name for officers is simply a semantic change, but Squires said it is part of a long-term, strategic effort to create a safety department that better serves and represents all of our campus community.
“You will still see the word ‘police’ on our, badges, uniforms and vehicles, as it is the universal designation for our criminal justice services and responsibilities, but when appropriate we will also genuinely identify our vision, role and approach to serving our university community as being peace officers,” he said.
These larger efforts include the following:
- Changing the language of policing and eliminating questions that may inadvertently blame people seeking support from the department
- Joining the 30×30 challenge to increase the number of women in the department
- Launching a campus listening tour
“At the end of the day, the most important part of improving the relationship we have with the campus community is showing up and doing the work it takes to do our jobs better,” Squires said. “We have a new team of very caring professionals and are always seeking to improve, and I am confident that the efforts we are making will support that mission.”