In an attempt to bridge the relationship between students and law enforcement officers, the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) will adopt a comfort dog before the beginning of the spring 2022 semester. The dog adoption is part of the department’s efforts to reconnect with the community after several student groups have called for its abolishment. Though they appreciate the sentiment, many students are wary that a comfort dog does not actually respond to activist demands and will merely be a distraction from the true problem: an unwanted police presence on campus.
The adoption announcement came in an email sent on May 10, in which President Biddy Martin detailed the college’s “new approach to public safety.” Despite student advocacy for reduced police presence on campus, Martin did not meet demands such as disarming and defunding ACPD. Rather than eliminate the police department, the college has increased its efforts to establish a positive relationship between the police and the student body.
Despite the college’s efforts to revise campus policing, former and current students find the attempts to be misdirected at best. Ayodele Lewis ’21 thinks that ACPD’s adoption of a comfort dog is a diversion from the true issue of an unneeded police presence that makes students of color feel unsafe and uncomfortable. “Nothing will change if the number of armed officers continues to increase, what the school needs is complete disarmament.”
For Lewis, changing the face of ACPD requires more than a new mascot. “Although I don’t think that this is a permanent fix, [recruiting] cops that reflect the diversity of the student body will help in the meantime,” Lewis said. Diversifying the police force, Lewis said, will garner a stronger relationship between the police and the student body.
Sirus Wheaton ’23 also believes that the adoption is a strategy used to divert student attention. “[ACPD] said that they are getting a ‘dog’ just to get people excited about a campus pet. It’s like they're trying to get us to completely forget about all the issues that they have: they refuse to disarm and have refused to be disbanded,” Wheaton said.
Wheaton finds the efforts of ACPD to be insincere and forced. Wheaton noted that, “It is almost as if [ACPD] is trying to schmooze or something with the new dog and its other plans. It just feels very wrong.”
Jeremy Thomas ’21, a creator of the Reclaim Amherst campaign, explained that this initiative does not “increase the institutional memory of the institution.”
“While the comfort dogs may be a wonderful aesthetic element for the ACPD, they are substantively operating as publicity for the department,” he said. “Comfort dogs do nothing to reduce the constant threat of violence that ACPD poses and they do nothing to re-prioritize Amherst’s money towards students’ demonstrated mental health needs.”
In a statement to The Student, Executive Director of Community Safety and Chief of Police John Carter asserted that the adoption is not intended to distract students from changes to police presence. “[The comfort dog] engagement initiative has been under consideration since well before the process to re-imagine ACPD began and is not intended to distract from the important work of the Community Safety Committee to identify options for a community safety program that best meets the needs of the college,” Carter said.
The adoption, a part of the department's new focus on mental health, follows the recent discussions with students surrounding ACPD’s controversial presence on campus.
“Community safety needs a holistic and comprehensive approach that incorporates numerous initiatives even beyond ACPD, including a strong investigative ability and a robust community engagement plan. The allocation of financial resources to the comfort dog project is relatively small, as the dog is donated and the handler is already employed by the college,” Carter said.
ACPD’s dog is the beginning of the department’s forthcoming efforts to more effectively accommodate students’ needs, Carter expressed. He stated, “The comfort dog is only one initiative we are adopting at ACPD as part of our redefined role, the important discussion on which continues with the Campus Safety committee, which includes faculty, staff and students.”
Carter also stated that the department’s rationale for the adoption goes beyond repairing student-police relations. It comes from an interest in improving student mental health as well. “Over the past few years, many departments across the country have started to adopt comfort dogs, which have been used successfully to help people after traumatic incidents, such as after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school and in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School. Studies have shown that simply petting a dog is a great stress reliever,” Carter said.
Some students agree that an ACPD comfort dog will help to improve student mental health. Abhi Gupta ’25 believes that having a dog on campus will definitely help students alleviate daily stress. “I think it's a really cool idea that will help people who are missing their dogs back home. I mean, they had the petting zoo a couple weeks ago and that helped a lot.”
Aidan Cook ’24 is also optimistic about the adoption. “I think [that] it's great — as long as the students are able to interact with [the dog]. Maybe [ACPD] could hold some dog office hours! And if the dog is cute, then I will fully support the program,” Cook said. He noted that he does think that an ACPD dog could help build a community with the Amherst student body.
When asked how the police department would be adopting the dog, Carter said: “Our dog will be coming from a breeder called Boonefield Labradors in southern New Hampshire, [who] breeds dogs that have excellent temperaments and are widely used in the therapy dog community.”
Zoe Strothkamp ’24 expressed concern regarding how the ACPD will obtain the puppy, despite her optimism about the new program. “I don't really mind that the ACPD adopted a dog because it could be kind of nice, but I do think it's not the best decision that they adopted from a breeder rather than a shelter. Rescuing dogs is important, and since the adoption is for a public service, the ACPD should adopt from a shelter to serve as an example for others,” Strothkamp said.
The comfort dog initiative is one of many attempts of the college to engage students in conversations surrounding campus safety. As the Campus Safety Advisory Committee continues to develop new plans for campus safety, they have turned to student input and approval. For example, the Campus Advisory Committee has scheduled numerous focus groups and “community engagement sessions” throughout the fall semester on Sept. 29, Sept. 30, Oct. 5, Oct. 6, Oct. 7 and Oct. 13. Several of the planned events have been canceled due to lacking student attendance.
In the community engagement sessions, consultants have asked students about their definitions of safety, what changes they’d like to see in campus policy, and “ways that [they] would suggest … developing trust and relationship with the campus police.”
Carter said that ACPD’s ultimate goal is to build its relationship with the student community. “Hopefully [the adopted dog] will foster positive relationships,” Carter said, “allowing us to get to know [students] on a one to one basis, and not be just the people who show up in an emergency.”
Still, Thomas holds: “The changes needed from ACPD will most likely not come from ACPD itself. The institution must make the decision to prioritize the actual needs of students over assumptions and misunderstandings of safety. The safest version of Amherst College is one without ACPD (and the Amherst Town Police for that matter).”