BY LIZ LEWIS ’22
The Blanchard Great Room hosted tension and tears on the evening of Thursday, March 19, as members of the Mount Holyoke administration held a forum for students to engage with the newly hired Chief of Campus Police, Daniel Hect.
Hect was appointed as the chief of Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges’ joint police department, effective Feb. 18, 2019. According to his LinkedIn Profile, after earning a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix, he also went on to achieve a Graduate Certificate from the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, a Doctorate of Education from Argosy University and a Master’s degree from USC. He previously served as the director of public safety and Chief of Police at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio and director of campus safety and Chief of Police at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Hect also has a military background, with years of service and leadership in the U.S. Air Force.
According to Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall, the process of creating Thursday night’s forum began when “students came to SGA with questions and concerns.” SGA referred the gathered information to Hall, who said she “worked across the College to come up with the format of [the forum].”
The concerns at the heart of the event primarily involved Hect’s social media presence, particularly on Twitter. Following Hect’s appointment to the position, students noticed that many of his liked tweets come from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and President Donald Trump. Some of those tweets also contained messages in support of President Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall, along with other opinions some students considered racist.
Administrators present at the forum included Hall, Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Shannon Gurek, Ombudsperson Vivian Hsu and Angelis Liriano ’22, who served as the event’s mediator.
Before introducing Hect to the forum, Gurek gave a brief overview of how and why he was hired as Chief of Police. The position, according to Gurek, had been “vacant since the fall of 2017,” hosting an interim during much of the search for a permanent chief. Gurek served as chair of the search committee, which brought four candidates to campus, and determined that Hect possessed “key skills in areas [they] needed,” particularly emergency management, and that he could serve as a “strong leader.” She also expressed conviction that “with good guidance and coaching, we [have] the right candidate to lead the department.”
Hect introduced himself to the room, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to speak to the student body and to, as he phrased it, “give an overview of what I think is important in policing a college campus, [as well as] a little bit about myself.” After a brief overview of his background experience in community-based police work, the floor was opened for questions.
Many students appeared to come with prepared questions, relating to Hect’s plans for the police department and how he anticipates he will handle tough situations.
As mentioned multiple times throughout the night, Hect plans to consider the campus sense of community a priority in his new position. “The police presence on campus will change quite a bit,” said Hect. “[We plan to] focus on community engagement [and students] getting to know the campus police as human beings.”
Most of the night’s questions, however, circled back to what the new chief’s social media history revealed about his apparent political alignment. Conversation centered around Hect’s political ideology, with particular emphasis given to the topics of immigration reform, police brutality and his personal opinions on Trump and the NRA.
“Donald Trump’s viewpoints do not represent our country very well,” he said, when asked for his opinion on the president. “When [Trump] did something that I thought he did well, I wanted to like [his tweets in reference to those successes] in hopes to lead to more good behavior,” Hect explained. “I do not support Donald Trump. The hate that comes out of the White House is not okay.”
The possibility of a Trump-supporting chief of police was one of the many factors that drew Rachel Wood ’22 to attend Thursday’s forum. Wood considers “the type of personality in charge of [campus] police” to be critical to student wellbeing. “I’m not always super trusting of police in general,” said Wood. “But [I’m] especially [wary of] someone I’d heard might be a Trump supporter.”
When it comes to police brutality, Hect expressed that he condemns such abuses of power in the strongest possible terms. “When I took over another police department,” he said, “there were people we shouldn’t have [had] in uniform, and we got rid of them.” He plans to do the same at Mount Holyoke, should such a situation ever arise.
Discussions also heavily emphasized Hect’s views on the U.S. immigration system, which he believes “needs reform.” Some of his liked tweets referenced by students included the phrase “build the wall,” which was a strong point of contention throughout the night. Hect apologized for these tweets and “any damage they may have caused,” and said, “[the tweets saying] build a wall, obviously, on my end, [were] a huge mistake.”
A common theme shared by many student questions was a suspicion that Hect’s conception of racism may be misled or incomplete. “You seem to understand racism as a result of individual bad people,” said one student. “Racism is systemic. It is perpetuated by individuals, but it’s not the result of individual bad people.” Hect replied, “Racism has many ugly faces. Some of it is the right-wing hate speech. Some of it is very subtle,” answered Hect. “The impact of racism is significant in our society [but] crime is not dictated by someone’s skin [...it is] dictated by poverty and opportunity. Part of getting to racism is eliminating poverty and providing opportunity, [which is] something we can work on together.”
Numerous times during the forum, Hect expressed “sincere regret” for any words that “may have offended people,” along with hopes that he can gain the trust of students. To one student who voiced their opinions at the forum, this may be a long shot. “You need to take responsibility for the damage you have done,” said the student, met with a smattering of affirmative snaps from the audience. “It’s not just about deleting tweets, it’s bigger than that.”
“I have a lot of work to do here,” said Hect. “I will do my best to engage the community in open dialogue. It was not my intent to cause harm here or on this campus.” Various students said throughout the night, however, that intent doesn’t matter nearly as much as impact does in these situations. One such student followed up by asking, “What steps are you taking now to make the community feel safe?”
“I started that today by going through my Twitter feed, and deleting some comments and likes,” Hect answered.
“I am taking steps to address this bias,” he said in another response. “I didn’t see it until people pointed it out, to be honest….[but] I take ownership of that, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve taken those posts down.”
Both Hect and the students at the forum seemed to agree on one thing: that this conversation should continue. Hect said before the forum’s end that he “would be open to another one of these sessions.” Hall will also be emailing the student body regarding next steps.
“The purpose of the forum was to provide space to have an important dialogue between students and the new chief of police,” said Hall. “The relationship between our community and campus police is really critical for the overall health, safety and wellbeing of all members of our community. This is particularly important for students, since most students live on campus; this is your home and we want you to feel comfortable and safe here.”