The University of Minnesota took a rare step after unarmed black man George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody: scaling back its partnership with the city’s police department.
Now students across the country want their own colleges to back up statements opposing systemic racism by removing police from their campuses.
“They have a role in perpetuating violence against black and brown students,” said Ewan Johnson, a Temple University student who graduated in May and has helped organize a petition demanding the university cut ties with the Philadelphia Police Department.
Those demands were prompted by a police officer’s arrest on charges of assaulting a 21-year-old Temple student at a protest of Floyd’s death last month. Johnson said they’re also driven by over-policing of mostly black North Philadelphia and black students on campus.
A Temple spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment. The university, in a statement said cutting ties with Philadelphia police would not be in the “best interest” of students, faculty, and staff.
Student groups at Northwestern University, Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, the University of Louisville, the University of Iowa, and other institutions have demanded that college leaders end partnerships with local police or disband their own campus police departments. They’re connecting calls for removing police and cutting ties with local departments both to Floyd’s death and to broader concerns about treatment of black students and neighboring communities.
The student demands also mirror debates happening at K-12 districts in the aftermath of Floyd’s death over whether police should be removed from schools.
Congressional Democrats’ legislation designed to overhaul police practices stops short of addressing the role of police on college campuses directly. The measure, introduced this week, instead would repeal a controversial program that allows local police, including those on campuses, to stock up on military equipment.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said after Floyd’s death that he would introduce an amendment to the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill that would stop allowing the Pentagon to transfer surplus military equipment to local law enforcement. More than 100 college police departments have received items including uniforms, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers through the 1033 program, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
The Democrats’ police legislation (H.R. 7120) would restrict the program. Many colleges, after public scrutiny, returned equipment.
The real issue is colleges’ own continued spending on police forces, said Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California and founder of the Scholars for Black Lives collective.
About two-thirds of four-year colleges with at least 2,500 students have campus law enforcement, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, including almost all public institutions. Colleges spend an average of $2.7 million on their campus police, Davis wrote in a recent op-ed.
Colleges already face big financial pressures stemming from shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic. Money going to campus police could be used instead to maintain student services and academic programs, Davis said.
“If you’re going to be furloughing and laying people off, but still shelling out millions to support police, that’s a problem,” he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union has backed its higher education locals that want to remove campus police, as well as those that want to retain law enforcement “provided that policing is about supporting communities, students and staff.”
“Policing has to change, in schools and on the streets,” she said in a statement. The AFT, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, has backed the Democrats’ policing bill. Still, it is “not a panacea,” Weingarten said.
The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, which represents police chiefs on college campuses, called Floyd’s death a tragedy. It’s also a “setback for efforts to create trust and build relationships,” the group said in a statement.
Campus police generally provide a wider array of services than traditional police departments, including mental health assistance, said Josh Bronson, director of training at the association.
“We provide escort services to people who don’t feel safe walking across campus,” he said. “Our officers led the public safety response to Covid-19 on our campuses.”
Bronson said the association is developing webinars for the fall and summer to help members build connections with their campuses.
“They’re part of the community,” he said. “To build an effective community it’s important for everybody to understand that.”
Feeling Less Safe
Mari Gashaw, the coordinator of For Members Only, the black student union at Northwestern University, said police on her campus have made her feel less safe.
“I’ve had the police called on me for doing nothing at all. I’ve been stopped by police on campus asking if I go to Northwestern,” she said. “The question isn’t whether police give us safety because they truly do not.”
Students at Northwestern have called on the university to disband its campus police and break ties with with the Evanston and Chicago police departments, following the example of the University of Minnesota. Those demands stem not only from Floyd’s death but also from that Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her bed during a no-knock raid in Louisville, as well as several instances of police violence in the Chicago area, Northwestern student groups said in a statement.
A university spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on the demands.
Instead of spending on policing, colleges should fund mental health services that armed officers don’t provide, Gashaw said. Trained medics can do more to keep students safe at concerts and other large events on campuses, she said.
“We’re going to take resources you’re using to harm us and put it somewhere to support us,” she said.
Expectations for higher education have shifted beyond making statements in support of black students, said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust. Colleges should meet student demands to get police off campus but also address why black students are underrepresented at four-year colleges in states like Minnesota, Jones said.
“This is an important moment for higher education to be a leader,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org