Walkthroughs not effective community policing

When Security first acknowledged that it would conduct walkthroughs of Williams dorms this fall, it was argued that this was just one facet of “community policing,” a term that has become a buzzword in law enforcement. In a recent Housing Committee meeting and in today’s interview with the Record, Williamstown Chief of Police Arthur Parker echoed this “community policing” term and explained the philosophy behind it. We at the Record fully agree with the principles of this new form of policing, but disagree that this is a legitimate rationale for entering student residences without proper cause.

Community policing is, in and of itself, an important concept, and it is heartening to see the police department taking steps to make it more than merely a platitude. Just by attending a Housing Committee meeting and sitting down for a Record interview, Chief Parker has taken the first few steps in working on relations between students and the police department.

This hits upon the most important aspect of community policing: maintaining and fostering the often strained relationship between the College and the town. Parker acknowledges that “95 percent” of his work is not typical cops and robbers-type stuff; the job is more about community relations and cooperation than it is about arrest rates and apprehensions.

This is not to suggest that the police department should prostrate itself to the College or be stripped of its ability to uphold and enforce the law. But it goes without saying that all parties concerned – students, police, administration and town residents – benefit from a relationship that stresses instruction over intimidation. Too often, police officers remain distant figures who students recognize only as “bad guys;” by sitting down for meetings or even smiling at strangers, Parker helps to alleviate this problem.

This general philosophy of community policing brings the police department closer to the role that Security plays, and, in doing so, bodes well for the future of relationship between the two bodies. It would be an equally positive step, though, for the police to refrain from committing the much-debated walkthroughs, which – well-intentioned as they may be – misconstrue the message of community policing in a potentially harmful fashion.

The point is simple but important: as college students, we have reached an age when we must take responsibility for our actions. The relative freedom that a dorm room provides is integral to the social self-policing that should be an essential part of the collegiate learning experience.

With this responsibility comes a certain amount of pressure. Particularly egregious and harmful examples of underage drinking and drunk driving, for example, are sufficiently dangerous both to the College and the town as to justify decisive police action. As guardians of the law and the town, it is important that the department be able to intervene when students get in a car drunk.

The potential for irresponsible behavior, though, is not sound justification for dorm walkthroughs. Why not? Because, as policy, they breed mistrust, even antipathy. Just as the police need to be given a reason to have faith in students, students need to believe that the police are working objectively. Just like all other citizens, college students should be given the benefit of the doubt, and walkthroughs remove that benefit by implicitly assuming that illegal activities are going on.

There are better options for fostering a sense of community, such as continuing to encourage discourse with students and making the department’s operations less opaque. There are also better routes to effective policing, like cracking down on drunk driving. Walkthroughs are not the answer on either front.

But community policing as a generalized concept might help solve many of the problems currently facing the department and the College. We commend Chief Parker and the department for taking what may prove to be valuable step towards a more successful coexistence.