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Redefining the role: why “peace officers” embody productivity and positivity

For some community members, especially those of marginalized backgrounds, the presence of police officers can cause them to feel unwelcome, unwanted, and unsafe. The introduction of peace officers felt like an important step to create a more trusting and genuine relationship between officers and campus community members. 

What is a peace officer?

The term “peace officer” originates from an officer’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certificate. Peace officers are fundamentally different from standard police officers in their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. While “police officer” can be associated with images of conflict and enforcement, “peace officer” suggests productivity and caring intentions and interactions. 

A peace officer on the university’s campus can be seen as a community caretaker who advocates for learning more about the experiences of marginalized community members and working to better listen with care to the problems they face. 

Insights from peace officers on campus

University Police Capt. Jason Hinojosa believes that such a change cannot be in name only. “The department must work to transform the culture within its own ranks to reflect the duties and obligations of a peace officer,” Hinojosa said. “Law enforcement agents need to be provided with a new direction and vision, supplemented by training and skill-building, to fully embrace their new role as peace officers.”

According to Maj. Heather Sturzenegger, changes in the police department to better officer and campus members relations have already ensued. “I’m a mom,” she said. “I see all of these students as my own kids that I want to keep safe. When I interview people, I take the time to get to know them and build a connection.”

“An officer’s lived experiences don’t match the lived experiences on campus,” said Hinojosa. “As a peace officer, when you’re not policing, you’re organically interacting with the community, especially communities that are historically marginalized, to understand the lived experiences of campus and adjust the way policing is accomplished.”

Change has already begun

Last February, University of Utah Department of Public Safety leaders said they will no longer use nightsticks on campus. This came after reviewing the footage that captured the disturbing events that led to the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. 

“The peace officers on my team came to me stating they were outraged with what they saw captured in the footage, and I agree,” said Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires. “I appreciate the collaborative nature of the team members within my department and the ways they continue to reflect on our shared values and find ways to better serve our community.”

“Nightsticks are essentially outdated pain compliance devices that are rarely used in modern policing,” Squires said, in response to a question about their use in policing.

Squires and University Police Capt. Jason Hinojosa both said that they’ve been trained on such devices since the beginning of their law enforcement careers. However, both Squires and Hinojosa said they have never used batons or nightsticks in protecting themselves or others from being harmed in the line of duty. 

Peace officers want to serve as campus members that can put a greater emphasis on communication and productivity for the safety of others. 

“We are continually making improvements designed to help us better reflect the community we serve,” said Squires.