Policing protects students’s rights both on and off campus
September 10, 2010
While perusing the last edition of The Flat Hat for some topic to write about this week, I came across a column entitled “Police Should Promote Equality.” The author argues that the police presence in the community is unwarranted that officers unfairly target students for arrest and punishment — usually those who have been drinking. I must disagree. Throughout my time at the school, I have never had the impression that officers were out to get students. Naturally, officers want their presence to be known and will confront students they believe — usually correctly — to have been drinking. However, their treatment of students is generally quite lenient, usually no more than a stern talking to and a warning. The following stories are incidents I have witnessed myself, or heard first hand. I believe the pictures they paint serve as useful counterpoint to accusations of police harassment. The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
Todd was a freshman out at one of his first weekend parties. Although he drank a few times in high school, he had never gotten really drunk — and had certainly never blacked out. He had also never drunk hard liquor, and when his friend offered him some vodka, it quickly became a night of firsts. Flash-forward to Todd stumbling home, supported on either side by two friends. Just as the group neared the freshman dorms, a William and Mary police officer spotted them and pulled to the side of the road. He asked if they needed any help. When Todd’s two friends said they were taking him home, the officer told them to be careful and drove off.
Next, we meet Evan. As a junior, Evan feels comfortable around campus and, having recently turned 21 he is a bit too cocky about drinking. While walking with a few friends toward Wawa, he believes it would be cool to drink on the way. Evan knows there is usually a cop parked in front of Zable Stadium. He decides to dispose of his empty beer can by throwing it into the trees. Just as he does, a police car turns onto the road in front of him and witnesses his action. His friends quickly distance themselves as the car comes to a stop. The officer reprimands Evan for littering and tells him to retrieve the can. When Evan returns, the officer tells him he is luck to get only a scolding and asks him not to be so stupid in the future.
Finally, even the feared Alcohol Beverage Control is not without compassion. A few weeks back several ABC officers were staking out the Bloom and ABC store parking lots. They witnessed a group of three students arrive and one member ran into Bloom to withdraw cash. He then handed the cash to his two friends who went to buy alcohol. As they returned to the car an officer — complete with mustache and Hawaiian shirt — approached them and asked for identification. Two in the group were over 21, but one was not. After briefly stonewalling, the students admitted that they had in fact bought alcohol for a minor. The ABC officers, who had by now multiplied, went through an interesting good-cop, bad-cop routine — the man with the Hawaiian shirt obviously being the badass. In the end the officers let the students off with a warning, provided they return the alcohol.
What I believe these incidents tell us is that the police around campus are not really looking to arrest and punish students. Rather, they want to show their presence and demonstrate how easy it is for us to get caught for actions that are illegal. Of course there are other stories of students who do get in serious trouble. Sometimes it is because they are being extremely dumb — a condition which seems to be correlated with intoxication — but sometimes it is just a matter of being in the wrong place, in the wrong state of mind. Expecting the police to never punish any student for drinking is akin to asking them not to enforce the law, which is something they cannot do. For my part, I believe the police generally do a good job navigating the gray area between the law and college culture. Because these two forces are at times diametrically opposed, there is no possibility that we will always be happy with the actions of the upholders of the law. It could, however, be a lot worse.