Which is worse: facing legal action or public humiliation? Students caught stealing from Sodexo dining halls by the Binghamton University Police Department were forced to make this decision.
In the first few weeks of the semester, there have been several cases of students being caught stealing food from the dining halls. Once discovered, these students are faced with an ultimatum: either publicly announce their crime, or be arrested.
Hayley Dicken, a senior majoring in human development, witnessed a dining hall confession.
“I was sitting in the dining hall, and we saw a student walk out with a tray of food,” Dicken said. “He was standing on the side, and then we saw the UPD come in. They walked halfway up the stairs. And the UPD officer was basically like, ‘Your friend here just stole a tray of food. This is why your dining hall prices go up so much. What do you think about what he did?’ And everyone was silent. Then the officer said, ‘Are you ever going to steal food again?’ And the kid just shook his head and just held his head low, and ran out. He was humiliated.”
Timothy Faughnan, chief of Binghamton’s New York State University Police, said that using shaming as a punishment is not the appropriate way for University police officers to react to thievery.
“Allegations that a Binghamton University Police Officer has publicly embarrassed students have been brought to my attention. We are taking these allegations very seriously and have taken swift and decisive action to investigate the matter. We anticipate our investigation will be complete in two weeks,” Faughnan wrote in an email. “We expect the highest level of professionalism from our officers and these allegations run counter to our community policing philosophy. We do not condone or tolerate inappropriate behavior from our officers and work within the University’s rules and the laws of the state to ensure inappropriate behavior does not occur on our campus.”
Investigator Patrick Reilly agreed that this is not the kind of thing for which the University police would like to be recognized.
“Officers shouldn’t be giving punishment if they’re also taking action on it. It’s not something that we support, as far as the University police go,” Reilly said.
However, Dicken was not the only student witness to a chastisement like this. Later in the day, Gilad Eisenberg, a sophomore majoring in biology, observed a similar occurrence.
“Well, my friends and I were just eating lunch when all of the sudden an officer was standing on the steps of the CIW Dining Hall,” Eisenberg said. “He apologized for interrupting our lunch, and then proceeded to explain how the kid had attempted to steal a water bottle from the dining hall. The student spoke, introduced himself and admitted that he had gotten caught stealing a water bottle. The student looked pretty beaten down. Everyone was either trying to ignore it or felt bad for the kid.”
Many Sodexo employees have witnessed theft during their shifts, both at resident dining halls and locations like the Hinman College Café. The most frequently reported location of this public shaming has been in College-in-the-Woods, both at the C-Store and the dining hall.
“I’ve seen it happen at least one or two times per shift,” said Joshua Toussaint, a Sodexo employee. “The cops will say you can either get arrested, or announce to the whole area that you got caught stealing.”
Unlike some of the students who felt the shame brought on by the officers, Sam Sherman was more bothered than embarrassed.
Sherman, an undeclared sophomore, had been stopped by a cop after passing a register in Hinman Dining Hall without paying for his wings. When stopped, Sherman offered to pay but was instead given two options by the officer: tell the entire dining hall what he had done, or head down to the station.
“Honestly, I didn’t really care I just thought it was very petty and annoying,” Sherman wrote in an email. “A cop should have better things to do than bust kids stealing from dining halls on a state school campus. Its pathetic.”
Another student, however, was more contrite when he was caught stealing.
“I honestly don’t think I was the victim,” said a junior from CIW who wished to remain anonymous. “I committed a crime and could have went to jail but the officer gave me an alternative and I took it. I was at fault.”
The true policy for determining punishment for stealing food is unclear. According to University police, it is up to Sodexo which action they would like to take against the perpetrators.
“If a student’s caught stealing, the management of Sodexo has options just like any other victim on campus,” Reilly said. “They can have no action desired, a report generated, or most likely if the person is a student, it goes to University Judicial. They’ve also got criminal prosecution, or mediation. We ask the victim [Sodexo] what they would like done.”
According to University police, the seemingly increased police presence in the dining halls is not a result of a policy change, despite what some students may think.
“Officers do frequent the dining halls to have meals, since it’s easier for them to eat there than going Downtown,” Reilly said. “It’s part of a community outreach program. Officers sit with the student population, and we hope that it’s a way that the students will feel comfortable coming to the officers to ask them questions.”
But Matthew Rossie, assistant chief of police, said students stealing from the dining halls is a common issue on campus.
“There is a shoplifting problem. And that’s why the Sodexo managers like it when the police officers come into the dining hall,” Rossie said.
There is a separate charge in students’ meal plans allotted to cover costs of stolen food from Sodexo.
A recent report by the Residence Dining Advisory Committee stated that 3 percent of the cost paid at the register and 1 percent of the overall charge for food purchased at dining hall locations cover theft.
Some students are less than pleased with the current process of reproaching pupils for their illegal actions.
“I was shocked to hear that UPD officers would choose such a humiliating form of punishment,” said Melissa Gross, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering. “I know not all officers are like this, but the few who are should stop because this isn’t a sufficient way to handle the problem.”