UConn’s Chief of Police and Associate Vice President of Public Safety, Hans Rhynhart, announced two weeks ago that he will be stepping down from his position as Chief of Police. Rhynhart’s decision effectively splits a role which has in recent years been a joint appointment.
Nationwide, there seems to be a growing distrust and skepticism of the police.
Some of this was created by the most recent and jarring accounts of police brutality that galvanized millions to challenge the roles that police have come to inhabit in our communities.
Some of this distrust, however, was not created or adopted in recent months. Some of this distrust is long-standing and the direct result of deep wounds inflicted experientially, observationally, historically and politically by the workings of an unjust society. Their effects are manifold and have been the source of great pain and loss to individuals and families. Their effects have been damaging and degenerative to entire communities. In particular, the burden of these effects has fallen heavily, exactingly and disproportionately on black communities.
Public safety requires trust to fulfill its role. It is ineffective without trust. A community will not feel safe if it distrusts the methods and roles of its public safety workers. If distrust, skepticism and fear are present in a community, then directly and proactively addressing their causes becomes in itself a public safety issue.
As a large, publicly funded state institution, the UConn community is a cross-section of the larger communities of state and country we are all a part of. The distrust, skepticism and fear that have been birthed, awakened and painfully recollected in state and country are not absent from UConn. They are visibly present in the ardent, student-led efforts to defund the UConn police department and in the amplification of frustrated and even traumatic accounts of police encounters.
It is an issue of public safety to address the causes of police distrust, skepticism and fear at UConn. It is also an issue of public health. Many at UConn view the inadequate funding of mental health services as being undetachable from what is seen as unnecessary, unwanted and ineffective policing.
Yet in addressing these causes, efforts to repair the wounds of a broken relationship between police and community cannot and should not be the sole focus. The depths of those wounds, the urgency of the mental health crisis, the constant and present need for public safety on a college campus and the diversity of student experience necessitate that UConn is visionary throughout its process of addressing these causes.
We’re hopeful. Rhynhart’s effective bifurcation of the roles of police chief and AVP of Public Safety could be a monumental step in this process. The conflation of public safety with policing as reflected in the joint appointment of these two roles no longer stands in the way as tradition.
The door is wide open for UConn to consider public safety in a less police-centric and broader, community-oriented sense that is mentally, ecologically and even economically healthier for the members of that community. UConn can choose to walk through that door in its stances, decisions and proceedings while finding a replacement for Rhynhart. Otherwise, Rhynhart’s resignation will only be an organizational formality. We still have yet to see.