Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A CUPD car parks by Milstein Hall. Some survey respondents want to see CUPD officers ride bikes or travel by foot to offer a demilitarized appearance.

April 15, 2021

Public Safety Advisory Committee Survey Finds Disproportionate Discomfort, Dissatisfaction with CUPD

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Underrepresented groups on campus feel a disappropriate sense of dissatisfaction with the Cornell University Police Department, according to the Public Safety Advisory Survey. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning distributed a report of the findings on Wednesday.

The Public Safety Advisory Committee is mandated under New York State education law, and has been in existence for almost two decades at Cornell. The PSAC includes students, staff and faculty members who advise the CUPD on issues of public safety. 

The PSAC conducted the survey between Feb. 8 and Feb. 21. Its purpose is to inform PSAC in developing recommendations for improvements and changes to the CUPD, which will be sent to President Pollack by May 25.

Approximately 35,000 members of the Cornell community, including campus faculty, staff and students, were sent the survey. Twenty-two percent responded anonymously, and only 17 percent of the Cornell student body responded. Thirty-eight percent of respondents were staff members, 14 percent were faculty members and 48 percent were students, according to the PSAC survey website

The survey resulted in four main takeaways. Firstly, most members of the Cornell community do not regularly interact with the CUPD and are unaware of fundamental CUPD policies including whether they carry a gun. 

Secondly, underrepresented groups on campus – particularly Black and Latinx students – are much less likely than their white peers to feel satisfied with the CUPD.

Thirdly, one in three survey respondents said they felt “uneasy” or “frightened and anxious” by armed police officers, including CUPD representatives – a more prevalent sentiment among students of color.

The survey also asked students about their own experiences with the CUPD. Twenty-six percent of the respondents reported having an interaction with the CUPD since January 2019. 

According to the survey summary report, 89 percent of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were treated professionally and with respect, while 84 percent of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they came away from their interaction with a positive impression of the CUPD. 

Seventy-two percent of all respondents stated they were overall satisfied with the CUPD. 

However, students of color and LGBTQ+ participants disagreed — 20 percent of Black students said they are dissatisfied with the CUPD, 15 percent of all LGBTQ+ respondents expressed dissatisfaction. 

Many respondents noted that a priority of the CUPD should be to increase diversity and to retain more officers of color despite the difficulty of doing so in central New York, according to the survey report.

“CUPD officers make me feel uncomfortable anytime I see them following me or staring at me as a Black student,” said one anonymous student in the report. 

Forty-three percent of respondents said the presence of armed CUPD officers makes them feel safe and protected, while 22 percent said they felt uneasy with the presence and eight percent said they felt frightened and anxious by the presence of armed CUPD officers. Twenty-eight percent said it has little or no effect on their feeling of safety and security. 

“Given the infrequency of situations where they would need to use weapons of any kind, the open carrying of weapons is very intimidating to me as a person of color,” wrote an anonymous student in the report. 

However, the report also stated that the respondents lack an understanding of the CUPD’s firearms policy — that all sworn in officers may carry a firearm. Twenty-nine percent said they did not know whether the officers carried firearms or not. 

The report also discussed the current policy of CUPD officers responding to personal safety check requests. 

Forty-two percent of respondents did not know who conducts the personal safety checks. Eighty-five percent of respondents said they believe the personal safety checks should be conducted by a mental health professional and 40 percent believe that CUPD should only be called by the mental health professional if needed – only seven percent believe the current policy of armed CUPD officers responding to the checks is the best practice.

“I believe that no CUPD officers should be armed, except maybe for tasers. Funding mental health support services is more important than a police presence on campus,” one Cornell student wrote on the vision of the future of public safety. “I don’t know how much funding currently goes to CUPD, but I would like to see proportionally less funding going to police, especially regarding responses to student mental health crises.”

Many of the open-text responses indicated support for moving toward a model where trained professionals are the primary points of contact during these checks.

The survey further conveyed that respondents support a change in the “militarized-looking” CUPD and prefer uniforms that are lighter-colored as well as having officers travel on foot or by bike on campus. Some respondents indicated a want for officers to share more about themselves and their backgrounds to foster a greater human connection to the people they serve. 

Following the recording of the survey results, the PSAC conducted 11 focus groups to gain additional feedback from the respondents. A virtual forum is planned for early May to garner further input from respondents and inform the recommendations the committee will make.

“We are still collecting data from the focus groups, so we don’t have any recommendations yet,” said Joanne DeStefano, Cornell’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, who oversees the PSAC, in a University statement. “But I can tell you, the focus will be on when do we need armed officers and are there activities that do not need a law enforcement officer. I’m very hopeful for some productive recommendations in May.”

Correction, April 15, 8:38 a.m.: A previous version of this story misstated information about the creation of the Public Safety Advisory Committee. It previously stated that President Martha Pollack had created the PSAC in response to the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, however the New York State education law (Article 129-A of NYS Education Law §6431) mandates the PSAC and the PSAC has been in existence for almost two decades at Cornell. This post has since been updated.