The origin of the word climate dates back to 1375, from Old French climat, from Latin clima – “to slope”, from Proto-Indo-European klei – “to lean”. In its earliest and still most common usage, climate refers to the weather in some location averaged over a long period of time. In this sense, climate is an aggregate of environmental conditions with a particular slope or lean developed over many years and as such climate change can only be effected over time. When considered in the context of the recently released UW-Madison Campus Climate Survey results, I’m drawn to these original meanings as a framework within which to examine and better understand the various factors that shape our campus climate, the different ways in which those in the same location experience its climate, and the challenges inherent in changing the slope or lean of something created over many years.
The goal of the Campus Climate Survey was to understand students’ experiences with and perceptions about campus climate and diversity, including how people of different backgrounds and identities experience life at UW-Madison. While most students, especially majority students, reported a positive campus climate at UW-Madison, across many survey questions students from historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups reported less positive views of campus climate, to include a lower level of comfort in contacting the UW-Madison Police Department (UWPD). The fact that Trans/non-binary, LGBQ, Students of Color, and students with a disability reported that they were less likely to feel comfortable contacting UWPD if they had a problem is at best disheartening and further illuminates the trust challenges facing not only our department but the department across the street and those across the nation.
UWPD is committed to serving all members of our campus community. As a public servant, a Badger, a longtime Madison resident, and UWPD Chief, I am deeply concerned about any reported community reluctance to reach out to police for assistance. I understand that there are many social and political obstacles in place that inhibit/prevent certain individuals or groups from officially reporting problems to police and that many of these are beyond the ability of the police alone to eliminate. But to the extent that UWPD can identify and eliminate specific barriers, work collaboratively with our community to positively impact campus climate and build trust with those who are reluctant to turn to our department for help, we will invest the necessary time and resources wherever possible.
So what can we do? Scientists offer two strategies for addressing climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation involves limiting the extent of damage, while adaptation means changing the way we as a society live in response to the current/changing climate. UWPD endeavors to mitigate existing campus climate challenges through numerous ongoing outreach efforts such as our Community Officers, LGBTQ Liaison Officers, and CARE Team programs; through participation in various community engagement opportunities such as the Amigos en Azul program and United Way Immigration Task Force; through awareness and education initiatives such as our “We Believe You” and “Tell Us” campaigns; through ongoing cultural competency and implicit bias training; and through continued focus on improving our recruitment and hiring processes in an effort to create greater diversity within our ranks. Addressing climate change through adaptation strategies means that as a campus community and as a police department we cannot simply accept the status quo and must instead explore ways to individually and collectively reduce our “carbon footprint”. This principle is embodied in our UWPD “Reaching HIGHER” core values which not only ground us in the daily practice of serving our community with respect, integrity, compassion, and honor, but remind us that there is always room for improvement. As guardians dedicated to promoting community health and safety, UWPD is committed to continuous improvement. This commitment to continuous improvement means that we seek to foster healthy adaptation to changing environments and community expectations and that we welcome every opportunity to listen, to engage, and to cultivate trust through open and honest communication.
The challenged relationships that exist between police and marginalized groups have been shaped over many years. And while the current climate as negatively experienced by some of our UW students is not exclusively of our (UWPD) making, it is certainly one to which police have most often unintentionally, though arguably at times intentionally contributed over time. Of course, as with the climate change/global warming debate, we must first acknowledge that a problem exists and examine our role in creating it. To this end, UWPD regularly reviews department policy, procedure, and training, and we hold ourselves to rigorous best practice standards through our triple accreditation distinction. In addition, UWPD continues to establish collaborative mechanisms by which we can solicit and receive community input and feedback. By the close of this semester we will have in place the first UWPD Police Advisory Council, and on November 27th at 4:00 PM we will host the first of many community forums to engage those interested in discussion, address campus safety concerns, and answer questions. Lastly, as a campus community we must also accept that any remedy to a slope or climate long in the making and shaped by many factors, will require both a willingness to work together, and the patience necessary to effect significant and meaningful change over time.