While visiting friends at Princeton nearly 10 years ago, a campus police officer approached me at an eating club with a confident accusation.
“I saw you walk in off the street,” he barked breathlessly across the backyard—quickening his pace as if preparing to charge. “This is a private residence. You need to come with me.”
By the time I fought back fear long enough to muster words, and explained that I’d entered through the front door, the officer had firmly wrapped his fingers around my upper arm. As he tugged me through the crowded house party, whose mostly white attendees stared and shook their heads from the sidelines of my perp walk, I begged the officer to check the list of attendees. But the more I defended my innocence, the more he tightened his grip.
It wasn’t until a throng of students came to my defense, and presented the sheet of RSVPs to reveal my name, that the officer loosened his clutch. Although he walked away without saying a word—as if unable to spare the second it takes to say “sorry”—his silence served as a resounding reminder: While my Blackness rendered me guilty until proven innocent, his badge permitted him to act without consequence.
Even as this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in policy changes across state and local police departments, including chokehold bans and department defunding, campus police officers have largely evaded scrutiny.
However, campus police, which can be found at 92 percent of public colleges and 38 percent of private colleges, present the same structural problems currently criticized across traditional law enforcement, including unchecked bias, insufficient training, and excessive weaponization. In order to transform policing in America, police reforms, such as those banning excessive force and tear gas, must be replicated for the thousands of officers charged with protecting and serving millions of college students every day.
According to Davarian Baldwin, a professor of American studies at Trinity College whose forthcoming book examines colleges’ private police forces, understanding the dangers of campus law enforcement begins with understanding the relationships between colleges and the cities they inhabit.
“Many colleges and universities are the largest employers, landholders, health care providers, and policers in the cities where they’re based, which are often home to struggling communities of color,” Baldwin told me. “And to attract families to these communities, schools surround their campuses with militarized police forces, and work with cities to expand their jurisdiction.”
In cities where they are key drivers of local economies, colleges too often exert unfettered power, particularly under the pretense of protecting students and families. And while the violent crimes at colleges decreased 27 percent between 2004 and 2011, according to the most recently available data, campus police have grown in numbers and become increasingly armed, with nine out of 10 officers at public colleges being permitted to carry a gun. Moreover, with 86 percent of campus police permitted to make arrests off campus, officers like those employed by the University of Chicago—the second largest private police force in the world—are empowered to patrol tens of thousands of local residents, no matter the size of the university’s actual enrollment. And worse, given that private institutions are not subject to the same open records laws as state and local police, campus police have been able to expand with even less accountability than traditional law enforcement.
In cities primarily inhabited by people of color, the rapid arming and expansion of campus police, combined with a lack of anti-bias training and accountability, creates an us-versus-them mentality—the same mindset that led the Princeton police officer to wrongly accuse me of trespassing. The results can lead to violence from campus police against Black community members—people like Samuel DuBose, who was killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer in 2015, or Jason Washington, who was killed by Portland State University police while attempting to break up a bar fight in 2018.
More recently, the police department at Yale, my alma mater, has been the subject of petitions and protests following a police shooting in April 2019. As Paul Witherspoon and Stephanie Washington sat in their car, two police officers, including one employed by Yale, fired 16 rounds at the unarmed Black couple. While Witherspoon avoided injury, the gunfire left Washington hospitalized with a fractured spine. And this past summer, on the heels of nationwide protests, Washington filed a lawsuit against the officers involved and several other parties, including Yale.
Much like the outspoken students at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the University of California schools, organizers at Yale have refused to let Washington’s shooting go without a reckoning. Just hours after the video of the shooting was released, hundreds of Yalies and New Haven, Connecticut, residents rallied to condemn the brutal act. And shortly after, several student-activists formed the Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, whose recent petition has drawn more than 7,500 signatures in support of defunding and ultimately dismantling the Yale Police Department, and redirecting its $10 million budget to bolster New Haven’s communities of color.
As these students seek to end YPD’s violence off campus, they’re also combating its biased acts on campus—the sources of countless stories from Black students and alumni like me.
After recounting my incident at Princeton to my Black classmates at Yale around a decade ago, several shared stories of being accosted by Yale police officers. One shared how his enrollment was constantly questioned by officers, including one whose disbelief continued even after seeing his student ID, which she thought might be fake. Another classmate alerted the YPD after finding an intruder in his dorm room. When the officers arrived, they assumed he was the intruder, and launched into an interrogation before realizing their mistake. These sorts of experiences have continued through the years, with the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow infamously having been detained at gunpoint in 2015 by a Yale police officer, who claimed he fit the description of a burglary suspect.
Despite boasting the oldest campus police force in the country, dating back to 1894, time has done little to reduce Yale’s criminalization of Black people both on and off campus. Beyond Yale, Black students across the country are fed up. Indeed, after seeing her Twitter feed filled with videos of George Floyd pleading “I can’t breathe,” Jael Kerandi, the University of Minnesota’s first Black student body president, took immediate action. In her letter to the university administration, Kerandi demanded that, in order to keep Black students safe, the university immediately cease ties with the Minnesota Police Department. “We no longer wish to have a meeting or come to an agreement,” Kerandi wrote. “There is no middle ground.”
The day after Kerandi’s statement, a letter from the university’s president announced that it would end its contracts with the MPD for “large events” and “specialized services.” When I spoke to Kerandi about the response, she made it clear that, while her term as president has ended, her fight is far from over.
“I’m sure the administrators are like ‘I can’t wait until Jael graduates,’ ” she said with a laugh, before shifting her tone. “What I hope they realize is there are more students like me on the way. We won’t stop until we get exactly what we deserve, and they understand that our lives matter.”
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