Before being sworn in as the newest leader of the UW-Madison Police Department, Chief Kristen Roman sat down with The Daily Cardinal to discuss the most prevalent issues on campus, including campus carry legislation, undocumented students and sexual assault, among other issues.
Roman served as captain of community outreach at the Madison Police Department for 26 years. There, she led efforts to provide police services to individuals with mental illnesses in the Madison community.
Roman said she competed for the position with the intent of bringing her knowledge of community issues and leadership abilities to campus, and is excited to pursue new projects.
She plans to bring her leadership and communication skills to the UW-Madison campus and use it to strengthen the relationship between her department and individuals on campus and throughout the city.
What goals do you have for the future as UWPD chief and plans do you have?
Some of the things I’m looking at [are] that in my career, really within the last three years or so primarily, we all know we’ve seen a real challenge when it comes to police and community relationships and issues of trust. What that has done for me is, certainly, prompted me to do some reflection of the role of police and what the community’s expectations are for police. It’s also been very disheartening to have experienced that breach in trust that the community has with police. Really, it doesn’t matter what department you’re in at that point—people see a uniform and sort of have their reactions to police as a profession. So I really want to focus on having those community conversations around the relationship that the community has with police and, of course, my focus will be the campus community and this police department and what role we play in supporting and furthering the mission of the UW and supporting students and faculty in the day-to-day work that we’re doing. I think that there’s a bit of shift with the profession as a whole. I think we’re at a turning point, and a necessary one, to do some self-reflection. Not do that in a vacuum, but do that through discourse and conversation with the community about what their expectations are and what do they expect of police, what do they want from police, and to listen to and hear those conversations, how those unfold, and, hopefully, move forward around what I think have been some obstacles that are certainly in place through an erosion of trust. It has not been my experience or anything that I have heard directly, that the UWPD has any sort of disconnect or falling out with the campus community; in fact I hear the opposite. I hear that people’s interactions with UW police have been overwhelmingly positive, so I just want to build on some of those things. But I do know that there has been some unrest in the city and certainly on campus with respect to police and that’s an area I want to focus on.
Other areas I want to focus on are building on and bringing in some of my experience around mental health. That’s kind of taking a look at how we engage with the campus community around supporting and identifying mental health crises or challenges. I know college is a very stressful time for young adults and it’s also a time where mental illness can begin to manifest for the first time. There’s also just the stressors that are there for some students that potentially increase their likelihood of suicide or thoughts of suicide. These are all areas that I think police can really make a difference in collaborating and supporting individuals. That’s certainly something I want to look at and explore what services we provide and how we can bolster any of those in the community.
Other issues are, of course, alcohol and sexual assault. I’ve seen a lot of, from watching over at MPD, all the great work that this department has done in educating and in partnering around prevention for sexual assault. I want to keep moving that work forward and building on that. I like the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign that really focuses in on the role and responsibility of perpetrators or potential perpetrators to be thinking about these issues. “Stop the violence” kinds of campaigns I think are fantastic and I want to keep those moving forward. I know that sexual assault on campuses across the country is an issue and they’re grossly underreported. One of the things I’d like to focus on is how we, as a public safety entity, encourage and support victims to come forward and report. What that looks like right now, only a week in, I’m not exactly sure, I’ll have to take a look at that, but those are some of the key issues I’m working on—community partnership-building, collaboration and trust; sexual assault; mental health and the nexus, of course, with alcohol is I think there on all fronts, so I’ll also be looking at that.
You actually just touched on my last question a bit, which is that of sexual assault. Last semester we saw two pretty high profile cases on campus. How would you go about responding to cases such as those that have received national attention?
Responding, in two ways, once we are reacting to, or responding to, a sexual assault or a series of sexual assaults that have occurred initially our primary role is that investigation and how we work with, in a couple of cases here we’re not just talking about campus assaults but assaults that involve students off campus, and so partnering and coordinating with MPD or other agencies is certainly key. So, really just making sure that we are prepared to provide that investigatory support. Working with the university, however, we are able then for the work that they’re doing in response, because we each have a role when it comes to sexual assaults, so there’s that, but there’s also, as I mentioned before, how do we advocate for and support victims and take care of them? If they’ve come forward and are courageous enough to be reporting to our department then really we have an opportunity there to assure that they are connected to the various services and support systems that are in place, both on campus and in the city, through the criminal investigation. If it gets to criminal court, there’s that whole side of things that we would also be supporting the victim through. That’s just really about having the sensitivity, and a competency and understanding on all fronts as we move through those particular cases or those investigations. So there’s the specific response to the cases and then, of course, there’s the larger campus conversation about just the issue of sexual assault and I think we are plugged in and I want to stay plugged in on both of those fronts.
Another thing we saw on campus was a lot more protests last semester. Especially with a new administration what kind of plans do you have set up to control campus and keep it safe during times of political turmoil such as these?
Only a week in I’ve already begun to meet with student associations, like the chair of the Associated Students of Madison and have planned on my calendar to attend one of their monthly meetings coming up in February. Some of it just has to do with pre-planning and meeting ahead of time to lay some, I guess, agreed-upon-ground rules about how we want to facilitate people’s right to protest and assemble and speak what’s on their mind. That is a lot of work that can be done in advance to reach some sort of a mutual understanding about what the expectations are. I, of course, want people to exercise their rights to speak out, but my role is to ensure that they’re doing that and that we’re facilitating that in a way that keeps everyone safe and doesn’t break any laws, essentially. That’s clearly what our primary role is in that. The way to do that is to engage ahead of time with organizers and student activists and to let them know we’re not there to impede. We’re there to facilitate and talk to them about how we can best accomplish that together. Sometimes there are people whose goal potentially is to disrupt and so I want to have that conversation, too. If that is your ultimate goal, here’s what you can expect as a police response and potentially a campus administrative response. Really, just put all of the options on the table. I am also meeting, and have met with, campus administrators on the issue to talk about what the parameters are if students and organizers are looking to protest at various events on campus—speakers that come to campus, groups, events, whatever they maybe—to, again, as much in advance as we possibly can, which is the best way to do it. Once it’s happening we’re all in reactive mode and we certainly want to be able to react from a place that has been well thought-out and well-planned in advance. Those are some things I am already doing to facilitate what we have already seen an increase, as you noted, in this campus protests, and we certainly have seen them in the city, and a lot of times they start on campus and move into the city. It’s about pre-planning and coordination and communicating with everybody what the expectations are. To me that’s really key.
One of the things that we saw protested, and probably will continue to see protested, is the campus carry legislation that has been proposed. UWPD had signed a letter previously stating that they opposed the bill. What are your thoughts on that and what would your plan to keep campus safe if that were to pass?
I am working on a revision of that letter in my name, and will look for a similar show of support from all the campus chiefs, as was the case for that initial letter. Right now I’m looking at redrafting that effort and letter. My position is the same as it was from my predecessor and I will be supporting that with the letter. That hasn’t changed; it’s still there. I think the conversation about what to do should the legislation [be proposed] is a bridge we’ll cross when we get to it. But, what we can do now, if we’re talking about a potential increase in guns on campus should that legislation move forward and succeed, we’ll be talking about measures, then, within the buildings to increase and ensure safety, which, at this point, would be about talking with faculty and staff and students who are planning to carry if they’re willing to have that conversation, about what that looks like and what concerns we’ll all have about the increase. To me it’s all about awareness, putting out information potentially about safety concerns that are tied to an increase in guns in classrooms and on campus. I’ve read some of the studies that are out there, and one of the issues that comes to mind is the point to the potential for those who would carry and increase the number of guns on campus, of course, correlates with the potential increase of violence. There’s also concern of suicide threats because there’s a lethality element that’s now more readily available. What we can do to prevent comes down to educating and an awareness and talking about it ahead of time to say “Ok, now we’re seeing a potential for individuals to be carrying within the classroom, how does that now change our awareness, our potential response, should something nefarious be born of that?” That’s getting a bit far ahead, though. From what I understand currently the conversation around this issue is what it has been in the past when it was introduced the last time. Hopefully we’ll see a similar outcome.
I saw the sign taped on the door to UWPD that mentions opposing hate and bias on campus. Are there ideas you have to improve responses to incidents of hate and bias at UW-Madison?
I’ll tell you I have not thought of it yet in great detail one-week in. A lot of what I hear about hate and bias, my initial thought is what kind of work we’re doing to train officers around implicit bias and cultural competency; that’s one of the first places I go. But when individuals on campus are experiencing this, for me it comes back to the trust issue. Individuals who experience that need to trust that the system will respond in a way that yields some sort sense of justice and accountability, which comes back to the question of, “Do individuals who are on the receiving end of the aggression that’s rooted in hate and bias do they feel that there’s any sort of recourse?” I would want the message to be, if there is a crime that is committed in the issuance of that kind of statement or act that we will respond and we will pursue as we are able to within the law. I think there is another education opportunity there when it comes to this issue of hate crime, like what is a hate crime, what constitutes a hate crime, what can police do, what are the thresholds and elements of a crime that would constitute a hate crime that we can respond to, because I think there is a misunderstanding about that line between a statement of protected speech versus when does it cross that line and become a crime. If the behavior that’s being demonstrated does cross that line the officers in our department will certainly respond to and pursue those as a crime.
Recently, Chancellor Rebecca Blank released a statement about making UW-Madison a sanctuary campus. Do you believe that UW is a sanctuary campus, and how are you and UWPD going to ensure the safety of all undocumented students, faculty and staff on campus?
This is, again, one of those issues that when you look at police as an entity I think that clearly our role for the campus community in particular is we are not currently, and we will not be, looking at documentation, requesting documentation. Our approach and role as I see it is to ensure safety and protect individuals and that will not change. I am certainly sensitive to the climate and concerns, but my assurance is that at present we are not changing our approach in any way. We want people, on a number of issues, whether it’s sexual assault or hate crime or any crime, we want individuals to feel safe and comfortable in calling the police and calling our officers to respond. We won’t be doing anything differently and we’re not going to go on some sort of a hunt to look for individuals or even individuals that we come in contact with that have concerns about their immigration status, that’s not something we are pursuing. We are not immigration, we are not ICE, we’re the university police department and we’re there to protect and serve everybody.
What do you feel is an important message for UW-Madison students to keep in mind in order to keep themselves safe?
It’s really about making sound choices. I think there a lot of things that students can do to promote and ensure their own safety and the safety of each other and that is common sense, helping each other out, looking out for one another. It’s moderation when it comes to most things, that’s usually going to yield in safe outcomes. For students, this is an exciting time to be here. I was a student here once upon a time and it’s big, and for a lot of people they’re coming from smaller cities to come to the university, so I know that it’s exciting and all these doors are opening to the future. You can get a little bit caught up in the excitement and in the momentum, so my advice on how to stay safe is really about pausing and thinking before jumping in. And, of course, I think there’s an awareness piece to that, too. You’re here to get an education, so read and educate yourself about a lot of the issues that are tied to safety when it comes to some of the issues we touched on. Be engaged, have fun and be smart.