Metro

Are campus police departments diverse?

A Northeastern University police vehicle near the school’s main campus.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A Northeastern University police vehicle near the school’s main campus.

A spate of high-profile shootings by police nationwide has prompted calls for greater diversity among municipal law enforcement agencies. But less attention has been focused on college police departments, where most officers are armed and have powers that are similar to state and city forces.

A Globe review found that many colleges and universities in the area have police departments that largely reflect the campuses they serve — with a few notable exceptions.

Of nine area colleges and universities that provided data, five either closely resemble or have a higher percentage of minority officers compared to their student populations, while four do not.

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The four are University of Massachusetts Amherst, Brandeis, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This year’s police figures were compared with 2014 student enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Massachusetts campuses attract students from around the globe, and law enforcement experts say students value a police force that is considered “culturally competent’’ and reflects the student body.

“Students like to see people who look like them in roles across the campus, and campus police are no different,” said James Overton, the police chief and co-vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where minority officers account for 33 percent of the force compared with a student body with 36 percent minority students.

Police departments at Northeastern, Suffolk, and Emerson universities, and Boston College, also mostly mirror their student populations. Harvard, Tufts, and Boston universities declined to provide data on the makeup of their police forces.

At Brandeis University, Asian, black, and Hispanic students make up 22 percent of the student population, but its 24-member police department has only two minority officers — an Asian and a Cape Verdean.

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In November, acting Brandeis president Lisa M. Lynch vowed to increase the number of minorities within the student body and faculty after hundreds of students occupied the administration building to protest a lack of diversity on campus.

Edward M. Callahan, the university’s director of public safety, said creating a diverse police force is part of that initiative.

“We aim to have a police department that reflects the diversity of the community we serve,” Callahan said. “We are always seeking to get better. It is an important part of our ongoing effort to build an inclusive campus culture.”

At UMass Amherst, only 7 percent of its 59-member police force are minority officers, compared with a student population that is 19 percent Hispanic, black, and Asian.

UMass Amherst officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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The minority composition of the UMass Lowell and MIT departments was 7 and 9 percentage points lower than the student body, respectively.

“Sometimes you see a diverse college or university, but the police department is not diverse,” said Jacabo Negron, president of the Massachusetts Latino Police Officers Association and a Harvard University police detective. “It’s troubling.”

In Ohio, concerns about diversity arose after a43-year-old black man was shot and killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer last year. Samuel DuBose’s death followed those of two others in encounters with officers on the campus, including an 18-year-old student who died in 2011 after a stun gun was fired at him.

Public sentiment about police officers makes recruiting minorities difficult, whether for campus police departments or for cities and towns, experts say.

“A lot of people I talk to say: ‘It ain’t cool to be the po-po,’ ” said Lieutenant Charles P. Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers Inc. “A lot of that has to do with various incidents that have occurred across the country. They don’t see it as a viable career choice.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said college police chiefs have the added challenge of figuring out where to recruit for minority candidates and, in some cases, keeping pace with competitive salaries.

“[Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans] can go to community groups. . . . Where does a university go?” Wexler said. “How do they make inroads in communities they’re not familiar with?”

Most of the colleges and universities surveyed declined to provide information about starting salaries, but Overton said the starting pay for officers at UMass Boston is about $40,000, compared with $66,500 for a Boston police patrolman.

Suffolk University officials say they are attempting to improve recruitment bysharing openings with minority and LGBT police organizations and other community groups.

“The law enforcement department should strive to create a workforce that includes a range of diversity, not just race, but language,” Police Chief Gerard “Chip” Coletta said. “We’re trying to have a police department that deals effectively with the entire community.”

At Suffolk, minorities account for 61 percent of the total public safety personnel. That figure drops to 46 percent for the police department alone. A quarter of Suffolk’s student population are minorities.

Unlike municipal police departments, campus police in Massachusetts are not bound by civil service laws that give hiring preference to veterans, making it difficult for those agencies to diversify. But some campus forces, such as at MIT, require candidates to have a minimum of three years experience and training by a police academy.

“You want the best and the brightest,” said MIT Police Chief John DiFava, whose department is 24 percent minority compared with a student population that is 33 percent black, Hispanic, and Asian.

Northeastern, where 29 percent of its police force are minorities compared with 21 percent of the student body, has a two-track hiring system.

Candidates can get their start as community service officers. The department will pay for those officers to complete training at a police academy, making them eligible to be hired as a sworn officer.

Police chiefs say that retaining minority officers has been a challenge since various agencies are trying to hire the best candidates.

“I think the days of people starting at an organization and putting 35 years in isn’t what’s happening today,” said Northeastern Police Chief Michael A. Davis, who is black. “Folks start here and want to become a municipal police officer.”

Having a diverse college police force helps to build trust and establish credibility within the school’s community, particularly on campuses where students represent a variety of cultures and ethnicities, students and law enforcement leaders say.

In 2007, minority students at Harvard accused the predominantly white police department of racial profiling. The department was later restructured following an independent committee report by former Suffolk district attorney Ralph Martin.

In 2009, Harvard’s police department included only two black officers, according to an earlier Globe report.

Harvard senior Vanessa Decembre said she’d like to see a department that reflects the school. She recalled an outdoor party where campus police asked minority students, though not her, to show their identification.

“Diversity should include all facets,” Decembre said. “It’s just nice for students of color to see someone who looks like them.”

Boston University’s department was at the center of controversy in 2005. Chief Robert T. Shea retired following a lawsuit that accused him of making disparaging remarks about female officers, trying to hide evidence of racial profiling, and using derogatory terms for blacks and Italians.

Students and civil rights groups say details about the makeup of campus police forces should be public.

“Transparency is the best model,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “It’s problematic because we don’t know what those numbers look like and also how they correlate with complaints from students.”

Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.