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Courageous Conversations: What is a “Peace Officer?”

Last month the University of Utah Department of Public Safety concluded its Courageous Conversation series for the school year with a discussion about the department’s new emphasis on becoming “peace officers.”

The department’s use of the term started during the 2022-23 school year as Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires launched a listening tour across campus.

“Language matters,” said Brian Nicholls, former special assistant to the chief safety officer, explaining why the department is focusing on the term.

Members of department leadership started the conversation in April by sharing times they felt unwelcome, unwanted, and unsafe. They said they know the presence of police officers can cause similar feelings for members of the campus community, especially for people from marginalized backgrounds. The goal of becoming peace officers is to make notable changes in language and actions that aim to lessen feelings of discomfort and anxiety.

University of Utah Police Department (UUPD) leaders say the designation of “peace officer” originates from an officer’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certificate and implies roles, responsibilities, and expectations that are fundamentally different from a standard police officer.

To some, the term “police officer” might conjure up images of conflict and enforcement, whereas “peace officer” suggests productive, caring interactions. As some attendees noted, the name peace officer can convey the idea of a community caretaker.

According to University Police Capt. Jason Hinojosa, such a change cannot be in name only. The department must work to transform the culture within its own ranks to reflect the duties and obligations of a peace officer. Law enforcement agents need to be provided with a new direction and vision, supplemented by training and skill-building, to fully embrace their new role as peace officers.

This includes a focus on building genuine, trusting relationships between officers and campus community members, learning more about the experiences of marginalized community members, and working to better listen with care to the problems faced by those they serve.

Changes like this are already occurring, according to Maj. Heather Sturzenegger, executive officer.

“I’m a mom,” she said. “I see all of these students as my own kids that I want to keep safe. When I interview people, I take the time to get to know them and build a connection.”

Ensuring officers engage in active listening and in victim-centered dialogues, and avoiding the use of force by implementing de-escalation tactics, can have a profound impact on the way community members view and interact with officers, department leaders said.

The department also is working to empower individual campus community members by investing in resources such as a self-defense class for people of all genders.

Successfully making the shift to peace officers will have its challenges. From Hinojosa’s perspective, campus officers currently identify first and foremost as police officers. On average, U officers have 22 years of experience. Becoming peace officers will require not only a change in perspective but more education as well.

“An officer’s lived experiences don’t match the lived experiences on campus,” Hinojosa said. “As a peace officer, when you’re not policing, you’re organically interacting with the community, especially communities that are historically marginalized, to understand the lived experiences of campus and adjust the way policing is accomplished.”

Courageous conversations will continue in fall 2023.