The brutal police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, among many others, and the wave of national Black-led protests against racist police brutality that followed, have permanently altered the realm of the possible. Once deemed fringe or too radical, calls to defund and abolish the police are not only within view of the mainstream, but are suddenly on the table. Such demands have fueled new and already existing movements to dismantle and defund police on college campuses. In particular, the University of Minnesota’s (UM’s) move to cut some ties with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) in response to Floyd’s murder, as called for by student activists, has further shifted the paradigm, demonstrating that universities can absolutely act to remove law enforcement from their campuses.
Specifically, UM stated that it would no longer contract with the MPD to provide additional police for football games, concerts or other major events, or for specialized services (such as support for explosives detection). To be sure, the decision does not necessarily represent a firm commitment from UM to police abolition or even divestment from partnering with other forms of external law enforcement — it is merely a proclamation that the university will not partner with MPD. Still, the decision has served as inspiration for countless student activists and groups across the country, who have released public statements urging their universities to end university-police relationships and to abolish campus policing altogether. Citing numerous instances of the unlawful search, harassment, racial profiling, assault, arrest, coercion, incarceration, police beatings, and in some instances, the killing of primarily Black students or residents, these statements reveal an undeniable pattern of anti-Black racist policing practices and violence.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics report based on a nationwide survey found that 95 percent of public and private four-year colleges and universities with student bodies of 2,500 or more have their own campus police forces. Like municipal police, the majority of university campus police are authorized to carry a gun, chemical or pepper spray, a baton, and in some cases, a taser. They are authorized to patrol neighboring areas, and to stop, search and conduct arrests of community residents not affiliated with the university. However, they are not subject to state record laws. What this means is that campus police are not required to publish their policies and procedures or provide any other data to the public. Their right to conceal this information makes it difficult to know whether they have violated internal procedures.
The University of Chicago’s Police Department (UCPD), one of the largest private police forces in the country, is located on the South Side of Chicago, which is surrounded by predominantly Black neighborhoods. UCPD is composed of 100 officers who hold the same policing authority as municipal officers. Despite covering a jurisdiction that spans well beyond the boundaries of the university campus with over 65,000 people — a majority of whom are non-university-affiliated — the department is subject to few accountability measures.
UCPD has a long-documented history of criminalizing Black students and residents, a role that many link to the university’s urban renewal efforts aimed at displacing Black residents to make the university more appealing to white students and their parents, and to make their property developments more profitable. The UCPD has played a critical role in creating a majority-white university campus surrounded by majority-Black neighborhoods by employing racist policing tactics that terrorize and push Black community members further out. Data scientist Eric Langowski found that since 2015, 73 percent of traffic stops and 94 percent of street “interviews” conducted by the UCPD were with Black people, who also received citations at double the rate of non-Black people. In 2018, UCPD shot Charles Thomas, a fourth-year Black-Asian student, while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. UCPD subsequently incarcerated Thomas. This prompted the creation of the #CareNotCops coalition at the University of Chicago, which is currently calling on the university to disband UCPD and make reparations to those victimized by their brutal policing.
Public and private colleges and universities also maintain close working relationships with municipal police departments and often collaborate to enhance crime prevention efforts. As sites of training and knowledge production for law enforcement, universities help train municipal police forces in the tactics of order maintenance and criminalization that fuel racist police brutality. Northwestern University, for instance, has a long-established relationship with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and Evanston Police Department. As the statement put out by Northwestern student groups For Members Only, Coalition NU and the Northwestern University Graduate Workers calling for the divestment of policing and investment in its Black students outlines, “Northwestern was an early incubator of police science, a rampantly pseudoscientific field ostensibly dedicated to improving police work, but which has long helped serve police departments coerce confessions, tamper evidence, and illegally surveil communities.” In particular, the letter notes the complicity of Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety, an influential law enforcement training center, in promoting and legitimizing violent policing tactics. The interrogation techniques developed at Northwestern are the same ones used by the notorious CPD detective and commander Jon Burge, who along with several other police officers, coerced, tortured, incriminated and wrongfully convicted several Black and Brown men for crimes they did not commit.
Municipal police departments’ racist policing practices do not stop when policing university campuses, and campus police enact the same kinds of violence. For instance, the Northwestern students’ statement highlights numerous instances of police brutality and harassment against primarily Black and Brown students. There’s the story of 20-year-old Trent Hunt, who was recently followed and then tackled by Evanston police for recording the unlawful stop of another young Black man. Lawrence Crosby, a graduate engineering student, was stopped by Evanston police in 2015 when they received a call about a Black man attempting to steal a car. Video shows Crosby getting pulled over and being dragged out of the car, then being brutally beaten by six police officers. Then there’s 18-year-old Jesús Sánchez, who was coerced by police into making a false confession in 2014. Sánchez was wrongfully convicted and spent over four years in jail for a murder he did not commit.
These collaborations between municipal police and campus police tend to exacerbate anti-Black and racist police violence, putting the lives of primarily non-white people in danger. For instance, in 2019, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, an unarmed Black couple driving in their car, were stopped and shot at 16 times by Yale and Hamden police officers who were patrolling together. Neither Washington nor Witherspoon were arrested and no gun was ever found in their vehicle. The officers involved were never fired despite putting the life of two people in jeopardy.
Abolishing police on university campuses is also central to pushing back against the austerity measures that universities are already beginning to impose in response to the pandemic. Citing financial precarity from dwindling revenue from tuition while hoarding billions in endowments, university administrations are using the crisis of the pandemic to justify cuts to wages, health care and academic programs deemed unprofitable (and, as is often the case, programs that challenge the white supremacist status quo, such as African American or gender studies programs). When students, staff and faculty organize against these cuts, universities will deploy law enforcement to quash the efforts of those fighting to more equitably redistribute university resources and implement more democratic forms of university governance. A stark example of this is Johns Hopkins University announcing its intention to create an armed private police force. In 2018, students and faculty organized in opposition. They escalated their campaign by occupying an administration building to get the university to cancel its plan. As one of the organizers made poignantly clear: “Over 80 cops were deployed to arrest 7 people. This is a terrible foreshadowing of what Johns Hopkins will do when granted a full armed police force.” They’re not wrong.
Campus administrators’ intensification of law enforcement on campus is but one manifestation of universities’ investment in a broader regime of militarized police power and “violence work,” as Micol Seigel calls it. Johns Hopkins is one of the top 10 universities in the country with a deep relationship to the military-industrial complex. As a Vice investigation shows, these universities “produce the greatest number of students who are employed by the Intelligence Community (IC), have the closest relationships with the national security state, and profit the most from American war-waging.” Defense and security research funding constitutes nearly half of the $134.1 billion allotted to the U.S. Federal Research and Development Budget, the majority of which is distributed to these universities to help fund combat training for campus police and students through ROTC programs, labs, intelligence and security programs, the development of artificial intelligence technologies, and sophisticated military weapons that can enable “better killing.”
This alliance between the university and the national security state — what Henry Giroux calls the military-industrial-academic-complex — is invested in a regime of austerity that has, as Giroux rightfully argues, “undermined the university as a site of criticism, dissent and critical dialogue.” This is evident insofar as universities have already proven their readiness to unleash police power on those who dare to challenge their exploitative structures and unjust practices. Just earlier this year, it was revealed that the University of California at Santa Cruz used military surveillance equipment provided by the California National Guard to surveil UC Santa Cruz graduate workers on strike for an increase to their cost-of-living stipend, which barely covered living expenses in the costly Santa Cruz area. Over the course of their strike, peaceful strikers faced police aggression repeatedly. The strikers noted that “the size and brutality of the police response has been stark.” The police were not there to protect the strikers, but rather, to repress their push for higher wages.
And campus police forces are, it turns out, not cheap, raising questions about their continuation during times of financial crisis. The University of California at Berkeley spent $22.4 million between 2018-2019. In total, the University of California system spent $138.2 million across its campuses on police forces during this same one-year period. At a time when universities and colleges are pointing to bleak financial futures to justify program, staff and wage cuts, the maintenance of outsized expenditures on campus police forces should give us pause. Why, we might ask, do universities rarely question or dip into massive law enforcement budgets during times of ostensible financial crisis, choosing instead to furlough workers, pause raises or make programming cuts? As popular awareness about racist police violence is quickly dismantling the “few bad apples” framework and revealing policing to be rotten at its core, universities’ continued prioritization of police over people — during a global pandemic, no less — fails to withstand scrutiny and bolsters their longstanding function as bastions of white supremacy.
A common question that arises is: How will we be safe from school shooters without a police force? Police officers do not have a good track record at preventing or de-escalating school shootings. A tragic example of this is the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where campus police officers were unable to prevent the massacre. No clear evidence exists that suggests having armed police present reduces school shootings. Studies show the opposite. In a study of 160 active-shooter events between 2000-2013, the FBI found that the majority of active-shooting incidents end because the shooter chooses to do so, whether through suicide or by fleeing the scene. Law enforcement only exchanged gunfire with active shooters in less than one-third of active shooting cases (28.1 percent). Further, while school shootings are horrific and tragic, they are still quite rare — thus prompting questions about whether they should be driving policy on policing in schools. And when they do occur, mass shootings are, in fact, often tied to the very culture of white supremacy and patriarchy perpetuated by police.
Questions we should be asking instead: Why are universities taking a passive approach by teaching “run, hide and fight” as the only preventative measure to mass shootings? What are universities doing to help curb this violence other than reinforcing it by assuming it’s inevitable?
Police are enforcers of sexual violence, systemic racism, racial capitalism and white supremacy. As Robert T. Chase and Yalile Suriel explain, “From the mid-1960s through the decade of the 1970s, American public universities admitted more Black and Latinx students in the hopes of expanding social mobility, but even as public universities opened their campuses to first-generation students they simultaneously developed new patterns of campus policing and surveillance.” Fast forward to today, and it’s clear that the pattern of enacting anti-Black and racist policing violence to silence Black students and non-Black students of color has not changed. It’s only worsened. With mounting pressure from the protests and student calls to defund and abolish campus policing, universities have taken to sharing numerous letters of solidarity, promising to put together more committees to oversee “change.” But history teaches us that these committees, diversity initiatives, and task forces are alibis for inaction and placating dissenting voices. The only solution to decreasing the threat that police pose to students, especially students of color, is to defund and abolish policing. If universities truly care about their Black students’ public safety and well-being, then they will defund, remove and sever ties with the police.