by Sarah Battaglia
Stony Brook University Police Chief Lawrence Zacarese, was honored by the university in February for his demonstration of compassion, dedication and extraordinary leadership during the COVID pandemic (story reported here). I spoke with him this past December about the role of the campus police and how things may have changed during this past year of social uprising and a new pandemic:
What do you think is working well about the relationship between University Police and the rest of campus?
I’ve been here 12 years, first as assistant chief and now Interim Chief since August. If you ask people you’ll find that we have good relationships and are viewed in a positive light. Our Community Relations team, faculty and staff, pride ourselves on being community oriented. Everybody’s job is to be a community outreach person, whether it’s athletic events, student life, homecoming, student clubs, quad activities – we are engaged at many levels. It gives us credibility, mutual respect and allows us to have a constant flow of communication. My leadership style is forward thinking and collaborative. I’m happy with where we are and where we are going.
How can we make it better?
We always look for new ways. Seven weeks ago we started a community patrol program with two police officers on every shift called “Park, Walk and Talk.” There’s no agenda, we just have officers interact with the campus community. They walk around the academic mall, they might introduce themselves, and just make sure things are ok. People sometimes wonder if something is wrong but we tell them we’re just walking around. It helps to take away the negative stigma that’s sometimes associated with policing. We want to knock down walls, build bridges and engage people in what we do. We receive extremely positive feedback. We’ve had Coffee with a Cop as well (on both west and east campus) where the community is welcome to chat with an officer over coffee and cake. Now our “COVID edition” involves precautions so it’s bottled water, individually wrapped snacks, social distancing and masks but it’s still well attended.
Are there any unique challenges that COVID has presented to the UPD?
We went from COVID fatigue to COVID exhaustion, now in the second wave. All of us have been affected. It was the weirdest first semester for new, incoming students (as well as those returning to campus) that we’ve ever had; we felt bad for them. Masks compliance began back in March; we never expected to be the mask police. We thought we would have issues with non-compliance but the opposite is true. Everyone is wearing masks on campus so our numbers are remarkably low in infection rate. It’s a testament to the strength, caring and resilience of our campus.
Has this year’s social justice movement and Black Lives Matter (BLM) affected relationships on campus and has it made any impact on the UPD?
The timing of the George Floyd incident was when COVID was peaking. We had societal unrest and social injustice at same time. When new resident assistants (RAs) were starting, we had seven listening tours (made of the Community Relations team and myself). We introduced ourselves and acknowledged our recognition of the importance of these conversations nationally and how this is affecting people everywhere. We want to hear them. Some controversial cases were covered, including George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and others. We want to say why we are different than county and state police; this is our commitment. This has received overwhelming positive feedback. Some of our students had bad interactions with police. I might not be able to I persuade them that we are not all bad but I will never stop trying. We heard from many students who were scared of the police, students from all five boroughs, out of state, and international students and the experiences they have individually had. We conducted dialogues of 90 minutes each with RAs, resident housing directors (RHDs) and professional staff (about 300 people). Some were congenial, some very spirited. We did more listening than talking and always try to assuage fears. They raised many good points.
Is there any training in place to address these social perceptions and fears that would help with how officers approach people and situations?
Officers are trained annually in implicit bias, escalation, and fair and impartial policing; 25% of our training is around these initiatives. Training is also created to address current situations as needed, such as COVID and social issues. When SBU President McGinnis came onboard, she established the Campus, Community and Personal Safety Advisory Committee with Judith Brown-Clarke; I sit on this committee. This is like “the committee before the committee,” where they decide the structure of what will ultimately become a standing, Presidential committee and provide guidance on campus. The committee membership of faculty, staff, and students will always change in order to get different perspectives. The committee is not there to oversee things but is actually there to enhance ongoing relationships, which speaks to the president’s commitment to diversity. There are 563 police agencies in NY State and less than half are accredited. We were the second SUNY school to be accredited, which illustrates our commitment to best practices and training. The police force is required to attend 21 hours per year for training, which we far exceed.
Are there any new responsibilities for the UPD now in these times?
Police are held more accountable now; accountability is a two-way street. Policing is a huge responsibility. The ability to take someone’s constitutional rights away is an incredible power so people are scrutinizing the police. There are a lot of cops that do great work but it’s those horrific incidents that are magnified. So what was on my plate 20 years ago is different now. We have to justify being good policemen more now. My job is to keep the public and officers safe as justly as possible. But I love this job and it’s fulfilling. We just need to hear more of the positive stories.
When or if are off-campus police called in?
Very infrequently. We are one of the bigger departments of SUNY and are very self-sufficient. We patrol the campus ourselves and also have a full service detective division. We handle all misdemeanors and felonies and have a very strong internal system. We would partner with Suffolk County or State Police for major cases like a homicide investigation or a serious vehicle accident.
Where is general data on UPD available to the public?
We are required to publish an Annual Security Report as part of the Jeanne Clery Act. The Jeanne Clery Act requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding to prepare, publish, and distribute, by October 1 of each year, campus security policies and crime statistics. Our report can be found at https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/police/news/Annual-Security-Report.php. Data has a 3-year lag so our 2020 Annual Report will cover 2018, 2019 and 2020. We keep a 60-day crime log for public inspection in our office Mondays-Fridays, 9-5. The SBU Police Department webpage is: https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/police/index.php
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
The report that your committee is compiling is an important initiative. This is the first time in my 12 years here where someone has reached out to hear what the Police Chief has to say. Also, we are bigger than many town and village police departments in Suffolk County. We have 78 sworn positions: chiefs, inspectors, lieutenants and police officers. We take our jobs and commitment to safety very seriously; there is a lot of good work being done here.
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