College police: How campuses are rethinking safety

Jul 5, 2020 by

Guns in the hands of security officers at colleges and universities are getting more scrutiny during the ongoing national conversation on policing.

We look to colleges and universities for their potential to be crucibles of society’s advancement and future leadership. But for today’s big questions around policing and public safety, the answers on campus seem no easier.

By Stephanie Hanes Correspondent

In April of last year, not long after the Maryland General Assembly gave Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University the go-ahead to create its own police department, students moved into the main administrative building on campus, Garland Hall, and refused to leave. They demanded the university reverse course, not wanting a private police force at school.

Many faculty members agreed. A group of Black professors had already written a letter to the school’s president, arguing that an increased police presence would not improve student safety and instead create a decidedly more insecure environment for minorities. With students protesting, a wider faculty group circulated a petition opposing the university’s plans, hoping to get community backup.

But they struggled to get attention. It was a year before the killing of George Floyd and the wave of demonstrations that followed, and, as Professor Renee Johnson, who works in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recalls, the faculty “worked so hard to get people to sign this petition a year ago, but they could barely do it.”

Students, getting frustrated, chained the doors of Garland Hall, essentially turning a sit-in into an occupation. A week later, Baltimore City police came in to arrest them. The university, meanwhile, stayed its course, insisting that an increased, armed police presence on and around campus was the best way to keep students safe.

In the wake of national protests, and with challenges to the university policy growing, Hopkins administrators announced on June 12 that they would suspend development of a private police department so that the school “may benefit from the national re-evaluation of policing in society.” The move came after faculty members circulated that petition again, this time collecting thousands of signatures within days. It also came amid a growing call on campuses across the country to disarm or disband university police departments.

Indeed, from Harvard University to the University of Virginia, from Ohio State University to Columbia University, coalitions of students, faculty members, and neighbors are calling for universities to reverse what many see as a yearslong ramping up of police presence on campuses. These are not new demands. But in what feels like a new era of protests against law enforcement, and a new national willingness to have a deep conversation about policing, these movements are growing, forcing policy changes, and, some hope, paving the way for a new vision of public safety. According to the United States Department of Justice, most universities and colleges in the U.S. now have armed police on campus.

“I am very pleased with the sustained demonstrations that I am seeing,” says Monique Dixon, head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund’s Policing Reform Campaign, which had criticized Hopkins’ private police force plans. “When you bring guns onto school campuses and law enforcement are called to disruptions, there is a fear among Black and brown students that they will not survive the interaction with law enforcement. And frankly, that just shouldn’t be a concern among students and their families when they send their children off to school.”

Hopkins is not alone in shifting positions. In late May, the University of Minnesota announced that it would no longer contract with the Minnesota City Police Department for security at sports games, concerts, and other gatherings. Harvard University earlier last month launched an independent review of its police department after students and others demanded to know why campus police had been dispatched to anti-racism protests in Boston. Yale University announced that it would continue to make changes to its policing policy, part of a reassessment of its department that began last year, when a Yale police officer was involved in the shooting of a Black couple during a traffic stop.

Pizza deliveries on a first-name basis

Even some police groups – including the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, or IACLEA – are saying that it is time to reconsider the approach of university-based police.

“There have been a number of campus chiefs and public safety directors out there that have become even more outspoken in the need for law enforcement to take on a different model,” says Josh Bronson, director of training at IACLEA. He says his group is working with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Divided Community Project, a dispute resolution and mediation project run out of the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, to develop new police trainings and programs that will help create a healthier environment for all students on campus.

“We want to be on the forefront of this conversation,” he says. “We want to push for meaningful change.”

He envisions the sort of student-police relationships that Noel March, director of the Maine Community Policing Institute and a professor at the University of Maine, Augusta, says he encouraged when he was chief of police at Maine’s flagship campus in Orono. There, he said, his officers treated residence halls as their neighborhood beats and were expected to know each student. He said he remembers students calling the police dispatch and asking for officers by name when something was amiss, and officers bringing pizza to the dorms.

“Our campus police have a rare opportunity to demonstrate and model for our students what the relationship between citizens and police officers should be,” he says.

A focus at HBCUs

Administrators at historically black colleges and universities have been working on this goal for years. In 2016, students, administrators, and law enforcement representatives from HBCUs met at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for a conference on how to bridge the gap between students and campus police departments. They found that many students had negative perceptions of the police and were mistrustful of officers on campus; out of that meeting came recommendations for increased training and communication programs. A number of HBCUs have since focused intensely on the sort of community policing that Mr. March describes.

At Florida A&M University, for instance, William Hudson Jr., vice president for student affairs, says student government, the police department, and administrators work together on campus safety issues; officers work out at the same health center as students, they are on bicycles and on foot instead of cars, and the police chief gives out his cellphone number – saying students and parents should call if they ever run into a problem.

“I get a sense of a different relationship,” Dr. Hudson says of his students and police, compared with other universities. “That comes from our police chief, but also from students who feel comfortable. … Do all students see it the same way? No. But I think the majority of our students understand that the police are there to keep us safe.”

Still, many campus advocates – including many at HBCUs – are skeptical about the idea that better training and relationships will improve the overall problem. The only legitimate way forward, they say, is to disband campus police departments altogether and start over.

“Safety is framed in all of these different ways,” says Miranda Cunningham, assistant professor of practice in child, youth, and family studies at Portland State University.

Dr. Cunningham has been involved in a growing effort to protest and then try to reverse the university’s decision in 2014 to arm its police force; a move that many worried would result in violence against minorities. In 2018, a Portland State University police officer shot and killed a Black father of three named Jason Washington, who was trying to break up a bar fight off campus.

Dr. Cunningham says that the “Disarm PSU Now” movement has been getting more support in recent weeks; it has continued to demand that the university disarm the school police force, create a memorial to Mr. Washington, and redirect police funding to alternatives. Students have pointed to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which uses the police-fire-ambulance communications system to dispatch teams of medics and counselors to calls about homelessness, substance use, and other problems.

A feeling of belonging

In Baltimore, many advocates say they hope Johns Hopkins will do more than just delay the new police force. They believe the university must abandon the plan altogether and start a real dialogue about public safety alternatives. Even the best training, explains Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Hopkins, can’t take away the bias and threat implicit for students of color in the policing system.

What happens, he asks, if a white student expresses concern to a police officer about a Black man “acting strangely” in the library, as one of his students witnessed not long ago? Multiple police officers approached and questioned a Black man, who turned out to be a student. There was no arrest, no violent confrontation, but real damage was still done, Dr. Spence says.

“What does that library space now become for that student?” he asks. “That student’s whole purpose is to graduate and become a functioning citizen in the world. And if there is one place that a student is supposed to do that, it’s the library. … How do you deal with that by training? Do you train [the police] to the point that they don’t respond? What happens then?”

Students and faculty members say that police officers on campus send messages not only to minority students that they don’t belong, but to younger city residents who might venture onto campus.

Dr. Johnson, for instance, regularly works with young city residents in her public health studies.

“They are wonderful young people,” says Dr. Johnson. “But if what they see is getting hassled by a Hopkins police officer, that will just deepen the wound. They’ll never see Hopkins as a place where they can go. We never get to benefit from all these brilliant kids in Baltimore. I don’t want to be on the side of telling them they don’t belong.”

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