When Hassan Ramzah was named chief of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Police Department in July of 2020, he was stepping into the role at a moment of transformation and turmoil for the country.
Prior to becoming chief, Ramzah served as assistant chief for three years, and he brought more than two decades of experience in community policing to the department. He was already moving UNLPD toward a guardian culture of policing, which aims to create outreach efforts that build trust, develop community partnerships, and foster engagement between police and the community, but the work became paramount following the murder of George Floyd.
Ramzah sat down with Nebraska Today to reflect on these events a year later, and to talk about the importance of community policing, his priorities for campus and his goal of forming strong collaborations with students, faculty, and staff in the future.
You previously worked for a metropolitan police department. How did you end up deciding to take on university policing?
I worked at the local university in Wichita as an adjunct instructor, so I was familiar with the campus environment. I was always interested in working with students. Having worked in law enforcement for several years, I thought it would be a good match to try campus policing. I was familiar with some of the campus police officers in the community where I worked. It just felt like, for me, campus policing would be a good learning experience. They work closely with faculty, staff and students, university athletics, and then also they had a relationship with our local police department, because we would both work criminal cases together, but we also worked on some of the local events that occurred on campus.
Do you still find time to teach?
Not right now. I’m working on my doctoral degree in educational administration, so I don’t have a lot of free time between serving as chief and my coursework.
Do you recall when you thought you wanted to be a police officer? Was it a childhood ambition? Or was it something that came about in adulthood?
I actually joined the Army right after high school, and I served for six years. And at the end of my term in the military, I was looking for something where I could continue to serve the community, but still have some aspects of military service — some structure — and again, I wanted to continue to serve the community. It was the choice between becoming a firefighter, or becoming a police officer, and the local police department called first.
Since becoming chief, what have been your priorities for the department and campus?
My focus for the department is collaboration and building relationships. Looking internally at some of the areas that we particularly have a need in right now, is recruiting a diverse pool of police officers, and what ways we can be more proactive and more efficient in terms of recruiting and building some of our open positions. It’s a combination of addressing some of the internal needs as well as building collaborative relationships on campus.
We’re working right now on a strategic plan. We’re increasing our involvement with some of our campus stakeholders, our UNLPD advisory board. The Police Advisory Board originally consisted of 11 members, two of whom are from UNLPD and serve in an advisory role. Upon receiving feedback from some members of the campus community, three additional members were added to increase representation on the Advisory Board including faculty, staff and students from racially minoritized backgrounds. We’re increasing the number of liaisons that we have with some of the organizations here on campus. It’s very multifaceted. It’s a step-by-step process, because we’re all learning at the same time as we’re trying to move forward.
When you talk about a strategic plan, what kinds of things are you looking at in that plan?
With our strategic plan, we want to make sure that we’re in alignment with Nebraska 2025, and with our business and finance initiatives. It’s concentrated on community policing, but some of the same things that I mentioned previously about collaboration — those campus partnerships — and working toward a more defined community policing philosophy. It’s important for us to really build those relationships, be less reactive and more proactive in our approach, and then leading under the premise of guardians of campus, rather than being guided by an enforcer philosophy.
That was actually my next question. When you talk about community policing, what does that mean to you? How would you like to see that play out on campus?
Community policing is a philosophy. It’s a focus on problem-solving, relying on a collaborative effort, and it’s also very proactive approach to campus safety. We take the position where we’re active members of the campus community, and we interact daily, not as outsiders but as collaborators and as partners. We’re members of the campus community who students, faculty and staff feel comfortable coming to and interacting with, and we’re actively engaged in activities on campus, so that the partnership is ongoing. A lot of times students don’t have, depending on where they come from, that comfort of being around police officers. We want to change the dynamics and be approachable and be there as another resource for student support.
There’s been a lot of talk about making policing better. It sounds like you were already working towards that. What actions have been taken since you addressed campus in summer 2020, regarding changes that would be made at UNLPD?
Certainly, the pandemic, across campus, has created some challenges, particularly with communication. We’re an organization that prides itself on being social and having those face-to-face contacts and interactions, so it’s been a real challenge to really make some of those connections in that normal sense. We’ve taken the approach where we still maintain that communication, using whatever tools that we have available, but right now, a lot of it is planning for the future and how we can continue to interact, as things return a little closer to normal.
A department assessment was completed in 2019 which included over 50 recommendations.
Some of changes implemented include restructuring patrol and investigations to improve services, implementing department policy reviews, conducting after-action reviews, focusing on employee wellness, and including more information about UNLPD on the department webpage.
Most of 2020 was used to implement changes in response to the recommendations; however, I was able to visit with several groups and organizations virtually and in-person to talk about the department and ways that UNLPD can increase dialogue and collaborate across campus towards building trust while promoting a save environment for our campus community. I was also fortunate to be able to participate in improv on stage with the very talented students with “We Are Nebraska.”
We want to expand and improve our outreach. We’re looking at all of the ways that we can address the concerns or questions surrounding policing on campus and in some cases off-campus. The goal, again, is to make sure that with our campus community, we have built a trusting relationship and we have established ourselves as a legitimate police department. Having earned trust is a very important part of that process.
And you personally, how did you grapple with it?
It was a point of reflection and looking at the bigger picture. I have several years of experience working in the community, and I understand, historically, the different relationships that certain communities have with police. It’s really about understanding how do we move forward? And how do we look at changing the dynamics? The tragic death of Mr. George Floyd in 2020 and other unarmed Black Americans by police has in some ways changed conversations within law enforcement about race and racism. Ensuring policing practices are fair, transparent and equitable is vital for building trust and establishing legitimacy. Initiating policing reforms, including changes to use of force policies and being more engaged in listening to community input regarding policing practices, are some of the ways, similar to other law enforcement agencies, we have focused on creating positive change. It is important to maintain our momentum in working to understand how our biases can influence how we relate and how we treat others. It’s everything from how we recruit, train our officers, and understand our own positionality and the positions of power that we hold. How do we use and leverage our position to ensure we are equitably serving all members of the campus community?
For me, it was a point of reflection, thinking about some of the things that I can do differently, to help educate our officers, build a relationship with the community, and it’s also about educating others about what we do.
Have you previously worked with any student organizations directly? What kinds of partnerships do you have currently with various campus entities?
Yes, we have been fortunate to have previously partnered with student organization on specific events as well as maintaining on-going collaborations with others. One of the things that I’m really looking forward to is, right now we are in the process of increasing opportunities to establish liaisons on campus — officers that liaison with different student organizations. We have a liaison officer with the office of fraternities and sororities to work directly with those student populations. We recently assigned an officer to serve as a liaison with our LGBTQA+ community. We’re continuing to make connections and develop partnerships.