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Counting the Cost of Arming Public Safety

During my undergraduate days (not long ago), I had a life-changing encounter with a Public Safety officer. I had been staying in my apartment in Saint & Elliot for Christmas break since I didn’t really have a home to return to. I wasn’t the only one staying back; there was one other white guy on my floor who hadn’t returned home, and my roommate who was from Thailand hung back at the apartment as well. After returning to campus from what was probably a late lunch at Mai Thai, I walked up to the second floor of my building, opened the door and walked directly to my room. Realizing that I hadn’t heard the door shut all the way, I turned around to a young man standing outside my bedroom door, deathly afraid, and staring at me for what seemed like forever.

“What are you doing here?!”

“I live here.”

“Let me see your ID.”

After showing this young, white dude my student ID, he gasped in relief. “I am so sorry. All of the students are home on break.”

“Obviously not.”

At the time, I didn’t know how to process everything that happened. The young man was embarrassed, I wanted it all to be over, and I didn’t know how to articulate that what just happened to me happens regularly to men of color. Even though the other guy on my floor was around during break, I was the perceived threat simply because I don’t look like the average Wheaton student.

That wasn’t the only incident I had with Public Safety.

Last year was my first year as Assistant Director in the OCO. Two weeks into the job, we drove up to HoneyRock to do our annual Student Development Leadership retreat.  During one of the teaching sessions on diversity, we were asked to break up into small groups – staff with staff and students with students.

One of the young women in my small group was a student with me a few years ago. She told me something I won’t forget.

“Matt, there was one night that you and Joe (fake name) were talking with me. After you guys left, a Public Safety officer approached me and asked if I was okay.”

My heart sank. I thought that every policing moment that happened to me was direct and to my knowledge. I was wrong. I sometimes walk around campus hoping that a Public Safety officer sees me the same way they see other white men in shirts and ties. I mean, my hair’s cut low (from the barbershop), I’ve got tattoos (that I normally keep hidden), and my voice gets kinda ‘hood when I feel scared.

So, when I read the article in The Record today about the proposal for arming Public Safety officers, I became frightened. I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. This morning I received a text message from another colleague of mine, a person of color, who also saw the article in The Record and was experiencing the same fear I was.

I heard about the idea last year in passing, but I wasn’t really aware that this was an ongoing discussion with an actual committee, which “include[s] faculty, staff, and one student.”

Who are the faculty on the committee? Who are the staff members? Who is that one student? What is the racial makeup of these faculty and staff (yes, that matters)?

Experiences with Public Safety are fundamentally different for people of color than they are for white members of the Wheaton community. Since this proposal affects the entire campus community, I wanted to add my voice to the conversation – a voice which I hope and anticipate will speak for many others.

I don’t want to imagine what would have happened to me in my home had that Public Safety officer been armed. As a perceived threat, the risk of lethal force would have escalated significantly had a weapon been present. Even if force wasn’t used during that encounter, the results would have been much more traumatic had a weapon been present. We have to seriously consider the risks of this proposal.

The conversation is centered on this very question:

What will happen if they are not armed during an event?

My question is simply:

How many events will we create if they are armed?

There are obviously pros and cons to arming Public Safety officers, and we have to count the costs. Training is good, but there will be inevitable risks that we inherit as a result of moving forward with this proposal. Whatever gains we make in arming our Public Safety officers will be paid by the people of color in our community. It will be bought by their sense of safety as well as their physical and emotional wellbeing.

I humbly disagree with the argument that because other Christian universities have proceeded to arm their campus security that we should as well. Liberty University’s policy should not influence our decision. Jerry Falwell, Jr. did not “urge his students to be vigilant.” He urged the student body to “end those Muslims.” We need to soberly discern whether taking cues from a xenophobe on gun control is a wise decision to make. I mean this seriously.

This critique isn’t sprung from the wells of some deep-seated hatred of police or a sense to trivialize the real dangers that they perceive and want to out-maneuver. My father just retired from the CPD Gang Unit of Chicago. I know the sense of fear that he’s felt on the job, and those experiences are real. My worry has nothing to do with the motive behind wanting to arm public safety officers. I think this is sprung from a desire to protect. I strongly believe, however, that it is woefully misguided and problematic, particularly for people of color like myself. Would Public Safety officials receive training on implicit bias? Would they be trained on de-escalation? Would they be given some kind of “rules of engagement” to mitigate the use of lethal force? Would there be any accountability for Public Safety officers who point their weapons at people? Would we provide trauma care to our students, like me, who fear that any given encounter with a Public Safety officer could be their last?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no” then we are either naïve, negligent or seriously callous.

What kinds of implications might this have for the homeless who approach our campus? What sort of theological message are we sending to our students who’ve come to realize that our safety as a Christian community is predicated on intimidation and self-preservation?

I humbly appeal to those of you who are on the committee and all who support this proposal to deeply reconsider this. I plead to you with all the love of an alma mater and the concern of a staff person in Student Development. If I have said anything off-handedly or mistakenly, I trust and pray that you will be gracious to a concerned soul. I truly believe that our students’ mental, emotional, and physical lives will be at stake if this proposal moves forward.  

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About the Author

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My name is Matthew Vega and I am the Assistant Director of the Office of Christian Outreach at Wheaton College. I am a radical disciple of Jesus. I graduated with a degree in Biblical & Theological Studies from Wheaton and I am happily married to my wife Dominique Maxey Vega. We live in Oak Park, IL.

2 Comments

  1. Mandy

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience here, Matt. As an alumna and former staff, this is very concerning to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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