Police Presence on HBCU Campuses

Police presence on HBCU campuses has long been a controversial issue. Learn about the history of policing, and how HBCUs are reforming policing nationally.
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  • HBCU students and local communities have long had contentious relationships with police.
  • Many police departments are majority white and have struggled to recruit and retain officers of color.
  • Eliminating bias in policing takes diversifying departments while reforming training.
  • HBCUs lead initiatives by recruiting diverse students and challenging police training to focus on empathy and community.

Acts of police brutality and contentious relationships with law enforcement are not new for Black Americans. Historically and still today, police are weaponized against people of color, with many encounters resulting in death and murder. This has led Black college students to mistrust the police and question how policing plays a role in campus communities.

Since their founding, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been symbols of racial justice and progress. Yet many HBCU students have had troubling encounters with campus security and local police departments, challenging HBCUs' progressive reputations. For example, in December 2022, police arrested a Winston-Salem University student due to a dispute with her white professor over an essay she wrote for class. The video of two police officers aggressively handling the student went viral on Tiktok.

Instances like this have led to conversations about police reform, including diversifying police forces and increasing bias training and de-escalation practices among law enforcement. HCBUs are leading the way in establishing their own training and research programs to help improve relationships between local minority groups and law enforcement.

History of Policing on HBCU Campuses

The first HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was established in 1837 when many African people were still enslaved. In the mid-19th century, even free Africans were subjected to rampant racism and segregation. Students of color at the first HBCUs dealt with violence and racism inflicted on them by white people outside of their college communities. They expressed much trepidation in involving law enforcement, as they felt they could be unjustly accused, arrested, or killed rather than helped.

The Gibbs-Green Tragedy

In the 1970s, Jackson State University students protested against white motorists who rode through a popular campus street (John R. Lynch Street), while shouting racist slurs and throwing items at students. Black students continued their protest and called for the closing of this campus street as a way to ensure their safety.

On May 14, 1970, violence erupted between students, police, and highway patrol. Police opened fire on campus, spraying nearly 400 rounds of bullets. When the firing ceased, 12 people had been shot, and two young men, James Green and Phillip Gibbs, were killed. This catastrophic event was labeled the Gibbs-Green Tragedy in their honor.

This event has left a long lasting-impression on Black communities and continues to inform an atmosphere of distrust between law enforcement and HBCUs.

Protecting HBCU Students

In 1999, concerned campus police chiefs and safety directors founded Historically Black Colleges and Universities Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators (HBCU-LEEA). The nonprofit organization aims to help these professionals share information and address mutual campus safety challenges for students attending the 107 HBCUs in the U.S.

How HBCUs Are Reforming Policing on Campus

HBCUs are taking a proactive approach to reforming policing on their campuses. To achieve this, they're working closely with local law enforcement and implementing various training programs and recruitment efforts.

A Push for Systemic Change at Dillard University

Dillard University's Center for Racial Justice (CRJ) works to bring about systemic change in policing through education and training, community building, and the promotion of civic engagement. The center conducts research to identify best practices for community policies, offers courses on police brutality, and hosts events that examine the impact of police violence on communities of color.

CRJ's mission is to systemically change policing in communities of color and promote partnerships with law enforcement. In a conversation with BestColleges, CRJ Director Dr. Ashraf Esmail says the relationships between the center, Dillard University Police Department, and New Orleans Police Department are key to initiating and facilitating difficult conversations.

CRJ hosts forums addressing issues with policing featuring panels of students, Dillard police personnel, and New Orleans Police Department officers. The point of these forums is to create a platform for open and honest dialogue and to educate and sensitize students, law enforcement, and faculty to foster a better understanding of community policing. Through these efforts, the Center for Racial Justice aims to encourage transparency, accountability, and trust in law enforcement and effect change that will ultimately make communities of color safer.

"I don't expect it to be easy," Esmail says. "If we're going to be there 'fluffing and nothing,' we're probably not going to accomplish much. But when you're at an HBCU, this is really impacting people."

The First HBCU Police Academy at Lincoln University

In January 2021, Lincoln University became the first HBCU to establish a police academy. The Lincoln University Law Enforcement Training Academy (LULETA) was created in part to help police departments recruit more diverse applicants — recruitment of law enforcement officers is down 5%. LULETA's inaugural class included nine students, with eight currently working in law enforcement.

Chief Gary Hill, co-founder and lead instructor of the program, plans on measuring the success of the program after three years with a heavy focus on officer integrity.

Many police reform initiatives have focused on increasing racial diversity among the police force under the assumption that white police officers are more likely to engage in biased policing than Black and Brown police officers. But a 2017 Arizona State University study shows having more Black police officers has not resulted in significant improvements in public safety or policing. Dr. Esmail notes that recruiting from HBCUs or increasing diversity in law enforcement alone won't bring about meaningful change unless there are fundamental changes in police training.

"There's some other dynamic going on in the culture of law enforcement," Esmail notes. "It's the culture of what's going on in those agencies that's problematic. Race is a part of it in terms of who's being attacked. We need to evaluate the culture and where it starts."

This is why the Lincoln University police academy focuses on understanding the law, skill development and physical training, ethics and professionalism, and community engagement. The program sees officers as agents of change and stresses fostering community relations and using empathy in police encounters.

What the Future Holds

Ongoing tensions between BIPOC communities and police indicate the need for sustained change. To fulfill their duty as public servants, police must prioritize cultural competence and respectful engagement with community members. Reforming policing on campus requires police departments to prioritize cultural awareness and recruit graduates from HBCUs who exhibit strong leadership skills, as the widespread bias in U.S. policing disproportionately impacts people of color.

The increased focus on HBCU students shows that many departments are invested in hiring officers who look like the communities they serve.

But, above all else, Esmail explains, police officers should be good people, regardless of race. "I just think there's a larger systematic issue in law enforcement and who they're recruiting," Esmail says. "You can tell these agencies across the country are desperate for good quality officers."

Organizations like the CRJ at Dillard continue to push uncomfortable conversations in the hopes of strengthening relationships between HBCU community members and law enforcement. These programs allow students to have a voice in deciding effective policing practices and crime reduction. This type of community involvement and input is critical to ensuring relationships between HBCUs, local communities, and police improve.

Reforming policing on campus requires an ongoing and sustained commitment to developing cultural competence, practicing respectful engagement, implementing empathy training, and recruiting diverse and competent officers.


Portrait of Dr. Ashraf Esmail

Dr. Ashraf Esmail

Dr. Ashraf Esmail has an active research agenda and extensive experience in Interdisciplinary research with focus areas in Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Educational Leadership. In addition to his research and teaching experience, Dr. Esmail has worked and presented at conferences at the national, regional, and university levels since early graduate school.

He has served as President of the National Association for Peace Education from 2010 and 2011, and currently serves as senior editor for the Journal of Education and Social Justice and International Journal of Leadership, Education, and Business Studies. Dr. Esmail is a State Commissioner for the Louisiana Justice Commission and serves on the Board of Directors for Louisiana Collation for Offender Resources.