Thursday, May 20, 2021

Abolishing the Campus Police: Is That a Good Idea?

 Davarian Baldwin, a professor at Trinity College, published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week, arguing that colleges should abolish their campus police forces. This is a terrible idea.

Baldwin began his article by mentioning two examples of alleged police brutality by campus police officers. One of these incidents took place in 2019, and the other in 2015.  There are approximately 4,000 colleges and universities in this country. Are we going to close down campus police forces because of a few atypical events?

If I understand Professor Baldwin's argument aright, he believes campus police officers often target nonwhite community residents and that their primary function is to protect the university's institutional interests. "The campus police function as the most visible form of urban renewal to clear city blocks and signal to investors, students, researchers, and their families that the area is open for business," Baldwin wrote.

But what about campus crime? This is Baldwin's response to a hypothetical skeptic who asks, "What if someone gets raped?"

[D]espite the widespread existence of campus police departments across the country, sexual violence and substance abuse among students remain prevalent. This policing failure could be, as some have argued, a matter not of capacity but priorities. Even with jurisdiction far beyond the main quads, the primary function of campus-police officers is to serve the university's interest. Bringing greater attention to white-on-white student crime would undervalue the institution's brand. In contrast, images of highly armed security forces storming city blocks reassures branding and business interests.

I find that argument difficult to follow. Is Professor Baldwin saying that campus police forces subordinate campus safety to universities' commercial interests? If so, I think he is wrong.

I don't disagree with everything Professor Baldwin wrote. He criticized universities that participate in a Department of Defense program that distributes military equipment to police departments, and I agree. The campus police do not need armored personnel carriers. 

But that is a minor issue. Only about 100 of the nation's 4,000 colleges and universities obtained military equipment from the Department of Defense.

I also agree with Professor Davis that campus police officers sometimes behave abusively.  The UC Davis police famously pepper-sprayed passive students in 2013, and very little was done to punish the offenders.  (If you want to see that incident, you can go to Youtube).

But university campuses have become virtual cities.  Some of them have 50,000 students or more on their campuses plus thousands of employees--professors, administrators, and staff people.  These people deserve on-site police protection.

Campus crime is an ongoing problem--something Congress recognized when it passed the Cleary Act more than 20 years ago.  That law requires colleges and universities to keep records of campus crime events and make those records available to the public.

Colleges and universities also provide campus housing for their students, and they are legally obligated to protect dorm residents from crime. In Mullins v. Pine Manor College, decided in 1983, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a verdict against a small, private college after a first-year student was abducted from her dorm room and raped.

More recently, the California Supreme Court ruled that a university has a duty to protect students in the classroom from other students that the university knows to be dangerous. In that case, a mentally ill student stabbed and nearly killed an undergraduate woman in a chemistry lab.

In my view, these incidents and hundreds of other criminal acts that have taken place on college campuses over the years argue in favor of a campus police force.

If Professor Baldwin's argument is that some police are poorly trained and mistreat community residents, let's talk about that. 

If the argument is that campus police sometimes behave abusively, as they did during the UC Davis pepper spray incident, let's talk about that. 

But to argue that the nation's 4,000 colleges and universities should abolish their campus police forces makes no sense to me at all.  And I bet it makes no sense to Mom and Pop, who send their sons and daughters to college in the expectation that the people in charge are committed to keeping their children safe.

We need better police officers, not fewer.

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