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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.”
Today’s concerns about the militarization and limited oversight in policing are largely a campus-policing issue.
This ramped up policing power emerges in the same moment that higher education has become a major economic engine in cities, primarily as a real-estate developer, with a portfolio of properties that house lucrative laboratories, housing units, and retail corridors right in the middle of impoverished working-class neighborhoods and communities of color. The campus police function as the most visible form of urban renewal to clear city blocks and signal to investors, students, researchers, and their families that the area is open for business.
“It’s akin to establishing a Vatican City within Baltimore,” is how Mary Washington, a state senator from Maryland, described the 2019 Johns Hopkins plan to create its own police department to me. She said not only would this armed private-security force sit in one of the country’s most impoverished cities, but it would establish the university as a quasi-municipality “with its own army, its own laws,” answering largely to the institution’s administration and Board of Trustees. At the same time, private institutions are not subject to Freedom of Information Act laws.
In what is hopefully a sign of things to come, Baltimore residents successfully pushed back against the university’s plans last summer, leading Hopkins to announce a delay in its police department for at least two years. The official statement pointed out that this “moment of national reckoning” required the university to reconsider its policing decision. Momentum for similar efforts is growing, with local campaigns against armed campus policing coalescing into the national Cops Off Campus coalition, the goal of which is to abolish all campus-police departments and redirect resources to those in need.
Because of the clear disconnect between the function of the campus police and actual public-safety needs, colleges are the perfect place to rethink policing more broadly. Activists have long pointed out that police abolition does not mean the total destruction of public safety. Officers have been forced to perform duties they were never trained to handle because of the continued divestment from social services and the bloating of police budgets. At the same time, around nine of 10 calls for service don’t even require an armed response.
Senator Washington, looking out at Johns Hopkins’s internationally recognized medical complex, suggested an alternative to the current situation. Why couldn’t colleges serve as a model for a new vision of public safety? Why couldn’t institutions supply teams of trauma and health-care workers instead of armed police units to the residents of their cities? Why couldn’t we replace campus-police facilities with neighborhood kitchens that turn unused supplies from dining halls into healthy meals for communities in need? That is what abolition could look like.
The disconnect between the function of the campus police and actual public-safety needs makes colleges the perfect place to rethink policing.
While raising the banner of public safety, the primary task of campus police has actually been to clear ground and protect the assets for one of the largest forces in today’s political economy: higher education. Yet the societal cost that comes with the campus police is steep, and students, professors, and administrators are starting to see the damage done to ostensibly protect their institutions. The summer of 2020 has forced colleges to make some changes. But sadly, the ultimate goal of reforms to date has often been to preserve armed campus policing as the primary mechanism of public safety. In fact, for the University of California Police Department, reform has meant increasing the police budget, the creation of a military-style Systemwide Response Team, and an expanded “use of force” guidelines which include broadened definitions of “active resistance” and “non-compliance” that give police even more latitude.
Such backsliding among colleges is why piecemeal reforms won’t solve the problem. The only solution is to take bold action. Colleges have long been dismissed as the training grounds for intemperate snowflakes and tenured radicals out of touch with reality, but the economic power, physical footprint, and security might of higher education tell a different story. The campus struggle over policing could serve as the staging ground for a more just and equitable future for everyone.