Why We Should Abolish the Campus PoliceRoundup
tags: Police, colleges and universities
Davarian L. Baldwin is a professor of American studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. His latest book is In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities (Bold Type Books, 2021).
In the spring of 2019, police in New Haven received a false report that a young Black man and woman, Paul Witherspoon and Stephanie Washington, were involved in an attempted armed robbery more than a mile away from Yale University. A campus-police officer joined other law-enforcement agents to open fire without provocation on the couple, causing Washington to suffer a nonfatal bullet wound to the face. This happened only a few years after a University of Cincinnati police officer killed a local Black man, Samuel DuBose, after stopping him off campus for a missing front license plate. These were just two of the most high-profile cases in which armed campus-police officers, far from campus, were shooting at people who had no affiliation with the university.
It is almost impossible to read about such unnecessary uses of deadly force by police officers without being reminded of Derek Chauvin’s slow-motion murder of George Floyd last year, which forced even the most cynical to admit that America has a policing problem. When people took to the streets in the summer, there were calls to defund the police or to abolish the current model as a state-sanctioned expression of white supremacy. But the mismatch between community-safety needs and the function of university police departments is even more glaring than in citywide police departments. College campuses should be ground zero for any attempts at police abolition.
Colleges have become one of the primary policing agents in big cities and small towns across the country. Justice Department statistics show that as of 2012, 92 percent of public colleges and 38 percent of private ones have police officers, most of whom are armed with guns. Around 90 percent have jurisdiction to arrest and patrol off campus. As of 2014, more than a hundred colleges were also armed to the teeth from the infamous Department of Defense 1033 program, which transferred excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement.
With such reach, influence, and largely private authority in our communities, campus-police forces are powerful and invasive institutions, and today’s concerns about the militarization and limited oversight in policing are largely a campus policing issue. The University of Chicago, for example, controls one of largest security forces in the world, with jurisdiction over 50,000 nonstudent residents.
Many residents of cities applaud the extra support from campus security, especially in urban neighborhoods where violence has increased or city police are slow to respond. But community groups have begun pushing back amid reports of racial profiling or at least the undue surveillance of nonwhite residents by police tasked with serving the interests of largely white institutions. While doing research for my latest book, I spoke with a young adult on Chicago’s South Side who said he was stopped three or four times a week even though he was not in any police database. On campuses across the country, students of color told me they wear school paraphernalia so as not to get confused for a “local.”
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