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Researcher brings credibility to campus police reform

University of Cincinnati revising policies following officer-involved shooting near campus
University Business, October 2015
Robin Engel, University of Cincinnati’s new vice president for safety and reform.
Robin Engel, University of Cincinnati’s new vice president for safety and reform.

Criminal justice professor and public safety expert Robin Engel’s extensive background working with both law enforcement and community advocates should give plenty of credibility to her leadership of the police reform initiative launched by University of Cincinnati after an officer-involved shooting near campus this summer.

Engel was promoted—to vice president for safety and reform—so she could lead the project. The effort began in July after then-university police Officer Ray Tensing was charged with murder in the fatal, off-campus shooting of an unarmed black motorist, Samuel DuBose, during a traffic stop.

“I have a strong relationship with law enforcement in this region, and I have been supportive, but I’ve also been a critical voice,” says Engel, who also is director of university’s Institute of Crime Science. “Sometimes only your closest partners can tell you the truth about what needs to change.”

Engel has consulted on data-driven policy and community relations with all levels of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and around the world. She had an instrumental role in federally-mandated reform of the city of Cincinnati’s police department, which began in 2002 after riots broke out in the city.

Since many of the university’s 44,000 students live just off campus, university police patrol those neighborhoods, which are also home to residents not affiliated with the school.

Engel’s work with university police over the last few years has led to a significant drop in crime in the neighborhoods, but July’s shooting has spurred some immediate policy changes and more officer training.

“We clearly have to diversify the police department,” Engel says. “We have to understand how and why we don’t have a department that’s reflective of our larger community.”

University of Cincinnati policy and procedure changes

  • Campus police no longer will pull cars over as a proactive tactic.
  • A new early-warning system will track the performance of campus police officers and flag problems.
  • Officers will receive training in “implicit bias,” the concept that racial stereotypes are deeply ingrained in society and can affect behavior even in people who consider themselves free from prejudice.

Bill Taylor, police chief at San Jacinto College in Texas and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, supports the university’s efforts, in part, because a similar reform initiative has already been successful in the surrounding city.

“But we’re dealing with the act of an individual,” Taylor says of the shooting. “It’s not necessarily systemic—you have to be careful you don’t use too broad a paintbrush to draw out that it’s the entire department or the way of all campus law enforcement.”

While Tensing’s case moves through the criminal courts, an outside investigative firm, Kroll Inc., has been hired by the University of Cincinnati to lead an inquiry into the July 19 shooting. The institution will bring in another outside group to do an extensive review of department policy.

Engel will coordinate all these efforts. For the process to succeed, she says, residents of the neighborhoods around campus will have to be given a voice.

“We need to make sure we provide for the safety of our students and visitors,” she adds, “but we also have to ensure we are also policing in a way that’s constitutional and perceived as equitable and legitimate in the eyes of our community.”

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