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This week marks a year since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
In the twelve months since a renewed Black Lives Matter movement brought lethal racism back to the forefront of white America’s consciousness, many of us who are white have learned to see policing, at its most and its least violent, as Black people experience it.
We have come to understand that policing is a category of state intervention that implicates the privileged and that what police forces do is a fundamental feature of institutionalized racism.
The idea that police protect “good” citizens from “bad actors” is policing’s central logic, something that is emphasized in the “thin blue line” merchandise that extends Trumpism’s profit-oriented politics into everyday life. One solution to police violence—to largely abolish police forces, replacing armed officers with experts trained in social service delivery—seems risible to those who view the world as a dangerous place, and foundational to those of us who see those dangers as grounded in neglect, poverty, and police officers amped up on testosterone and empowered by semi-automatic weapons.
I don’t know what I think about a world entirely without police, but it is entirely clear to me that most policing, as it exists, is a racist enterprise. It is clear to me that many police are fearful people, bent on maintaining their authority by intimidating others. It is clear to me that the refusal to disarm the civilian population creates a logic for the violent excesses that end in Black deaths.
What we have lacked so far is nuanced, public conversation about what police really do, what services they perform, and why. This, in turn, might be a guide to thinking about what we mean by “public safety.”
In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, American Studies scholar Davarian Baldwin opens the door to this conversation. Baldwin asks how the controversy over an expanded private security force proposed by The Johns Hopkins University could help us rethink policing more generally.
Citing incidents in which campus police in other cities have rushed to the scene of a presumed crime and killed Black people in the community, Baldwin advocates for eliminating privately-funded police on university and college campuses altogether. Campus police, he argues, help universities dominate and expand into the often under-served neighborhoods around them.
Campus police, Baldwin continues,
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.
Currently, the city of Baltimore has successfully pressured Hopkins into delaying its plans for two years, creating time and space to think about why these police forces exist in the first place “Because of the clear disconnect between the function of the campus police and actual public-safety needs,” Baldwin explains, “colleges are the perfect place to rethink policing more broadly.”
I agree. But campus police forces also do damage when they are not armed. If, as many advocates for police abolition hope, armed officers can be replaced by the delivery of social services, it is important to note that this is what campus police already do. On the vast majority of urban and non-urban campuses, private security forces spend the bulk of their time doing social services. This ranges from helping students recover from accidents, ineptitude and foolishness, to tracking crimes on campus.
And these “social services” are not a racially neutral activity, particularly since a critical function of campus security is to prevent parents and the public from being aware that there is any crime on campus at all. In fact, how these social services are delivered often prevents white students from being arrested and prosecuted, and otherwise embarrassing the university, when they actually do commit crimes.
Although I am now employed by a sprawling, urban university that is largely dominated by the New York Police Department, I worked for over 20 years at a small, elite college in central Connecticut where campus police were a major presence. On a campus like that, you know your police by their names. They are often the children of people who used to do the same jobs. They didn’t carry weapons. They locked our buildings at night when we forgot to, and were the Good Samaritans who came to open a locked classroom and we were supposed to start teaching in five minutes. They are the folks who roll through the parking lot as you are staring in dismay at your flat, and take twenty minutes out of their day to put the doughnut on so that you can make it a mile to the Town Fair Tire.
These function of campus police weren’t even social services: they were more in the category of neighborly actions. Because of this, many of us who were white took their genuine goodness for granted. And yet, what works for white faculty doesn’t work for all faculty. These casual contacts could turn menacing and demeaning when campus police did not recognize an African American adult as a faculty member and asked for an ID at the door of the classroom, in a parking lot, or crossing the campus at night.
Black students were even more affected by such potentially lethal forms of misrecognition. Worse, it was baked into the system. A report of a minor crime on my former campus—theft, perhaps reinforced by a threat of, or actual, violence—was not infrequently circulated to the community the following day with a sparse description of the perpetrator that emphasized their race. For example: “The suspect was a Black male, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, and carrying a blue backpack.” The outcome of this was to not only stigmatize Black men on campus in the eyes of their classmates but repeated shakedowns of these students by campus police as the “suspect” was “seen” and reported all over campus.
Does it need to be said that on a campus that was over 70% white that identifying a suspect as white did not result in hundreds of young white preppies being asked to open their backpacks and show ID?
Yet, horrible (and familiar to many readers) as this is, this too distracts us from the function that most campus police perform. In other words, who they are protecting from who?
The answer is that they are the primary buffer between the white student community, and a local police force that would otherwise charge and jail white students for numerous misdemeanors, petty crimes, and more serious violent crimes, that they commit. Importantly, campus police are in charge of not permitting the mayhem perpetrated by drunken students to leak into the surrounding community, but they are also charged, along with various deans, with keeping the crimes that occur on campus quiet and unreportable.
This is why. Most universities have an agreement with the city that surrounds them. Their own private security force has jurisdiction over whatever counts as the campus, including private dwellings where individual students, fraternities, and other campus organizations rent space. The city or town police, in most instances, agree not to come on campus unless they are called in by the campus police: it’s not that they can’t, but that they don’t. This arrangement is bolstered by public safety instructions to students inferring that, even in the event of a major crime, a student’s first call should be to the the university’s security.
This doesn’t just mean that campus police are sometimes the first responders to a crime scene that they are largely unequipped and untrained to secure or investigate. It means that they are in charge of containing knowledge about these, and more ordinary, pervasive, student crimes, diverting them to internal disciplinary bodies that convert them into social problems requiring (at worst) separation from the student community.
And the vast majority of students who are redirected into the cocoon of these campus disciplinary procedures are white.
The unspoken purpose of treating criminal behavior as social misbehavior is clear. It prevents various kinds of anti-social and violent behavior—selling drugs, fighting, sexual assault, underage drinking, and property destruction—from becoming scandals. For example, universities are a major market for illegal drugs, and have been for decades. In my experience, campus police know who the drug dealers on campus are. College administrators also more or less understand (and accept) that there will be widespread drug abuse among the students which creates a thriving market in drug trafficking, a federal crime.
Whether drug dealing should or should not be criminalized is an important public policy question (I happen to be in favor of decriminalization) but it isn’t one that universities get to decide, and drug trafficking on college campuses is endemic. Students are putting addictive and often contaminated substances in each other’s bodies, an activity that is an invitation to serious harm. Students are also getting prescriptions for uppers and downers and selling those to other students who abuse them to the point of addiction and suicide.
But colleges also know that actually enforcing their own drug policies (much less the law) would result in (mostly white) students being suspended or expelled on an almost weekly basis. So what they do instead is use campus security to contain knowledge about the sale and use of illegal drugs on campus.
For example, imagine that the angry parent of a local high school student reports that their child purchased weed or something stronger from a specific student in a specific dormitory. Or imagine that a local dealer or street informer, picked up and squeezed for information, reveals that there is a major connection on campus. What happens then?
This is what happens. The town police liaison calls campus security; campus security calls a relevant dean; the relevant dean calls the relevant student and says: you have 60 minutes to clear out your room before the campus police come to search it. Subsequently, campus security delivers a report back to the police liaison: there is no evidence of drug dealing on this campus!
Although too often they treat them like servants, white students know the campus police are their friends, a relationship that goes well beyond the ubiquitous lost key card or a ride home in the dark. College cops play a critical function, beginning on Wednesday night and escalating through the wee hours of Sunday morning, by rescuing students from the consequences of their inability, or unwillingness, to regulate their own drinking. My campus police sources admit a regular professional hazard is cleaning the vomit out of their cars after transporting students, from a party or a dorm, to a hospital where they can be hooked up to an IV and monitored for alcohol poisoning.
Remember: most of these students cannot legally drink, nor are the student groups in charge of the party legally permitted to serve alcohol to anyone underage. And yet they do, an act which carries civil and sometimes criminal penalties for private citizens should the drunken student go on to do damage to others or themself and be reported to the real police. Off campus, a dangerously drunk or high person triggers a 911 call: on campus, university police spirit the young person away to get medical care.
Medical care is, of course, more appropriate in many ways than a night in the drunk tank and a moringing in court. But the point is that white college students are functioning in an alternative legal universe, created and enforced by campus police, that cushions them from recognizing the potentially serious consequences of breaking the law.
This extends to more serious offenses like property damage, fighting, and other forms of white violence, often fueled by alcohol, that are a regular feature of college campuses. Most serious, in its life altering consequences, is the role that campus police play in diverting rape accusations to college disciplinary systems that function to conceal most of the sexual assaults that occur during the school year.
The AAUW estimates that fewer that 5% of rape accusations on campus are ever investigated by local police, and this is largely because they are not reported to the authorities. Students are instead encouraged to make confidential reports to campus police, making the university perhaps the beneficiary of the secret investigations that ensue.
At Fordham University, for example, a “public safety report” and a “police report” are presented as two equivalent options when they have two distinctly different implications for successfully prosecuting a rape. Students are told that their primary points of contact are “the Fordham University Department of Public Safety, a resident director, a resident assistant, a commuter assistant, the health center, and/or the counseling center.” How to report such a crime to the police, that trained police investigators will collect evidence and testimony properly,, and campus security will not, is never mentioned.
Here, I am not advocating for a stronger police presence on college campuses or anywhere for that matter. Nor am I advocating for “better policing.” I am persuaded by the movement to abolish the police that creating these small armies (many police officers are literally military veterans and members of the Reserve) in our communities has been a full-on disaster for Black lives. I know it needs to change.
But while replacing violent policing with social services is a good starting point, we need to understand that unless these new services are explicitly anti-racist, they too will continue to have as their primary purpose, protecting white people from harm.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).