Spotlight: Problems with campus police, on and off campus
What is the role of university campus police, and what should their powers be? The question has come up in a number of contexts recently, including, last week, in New Haven, Connecticut, after a Yale University campus police officer was one of two officers who shot Stephanie Washington, an unarmed Black woman, in New Haven.The officers opened fire on the car Washington was in after responding to a 911 call about an attempted robbery. (After the shooting, however, neither Washington, who was hospitalized immediately after, nor the driver, Paul Witherspoon, was arrested and no gun was found in their car or anywhere else.) The police have not offered an explanation for why the officers began shooting, with one state trooper simply offering that it was after the driver got out of the car “in an abrupt manner.” Between them, the officers fired 16 shots. [Eric Levenson / CNN]
There have been protests in New Haven and at Yale since the shooting. “Everyone is not a suspect. And that’s how people feel,” Kevin Walter, a city resident, told WTNH-TV. “We just want the police, we want the chiefs, we want the elected officials to understand that and hear what the community is saying. We just want accountability.” [WTNH.com]
The shooting has also forced a debate on the role of Yale’s campus police, whether its officers should be armed, and its place in the wider New Haven community. Neither Washington nor Witherspoon is a Yale student, and the shooting took place about a mile from campus. Students are demanding that the campus officer who was involved be fired, that campus police be disarmed, and that the university make a financial contribution to Washington and Witherspoon’s families for their immediate and long-term expenses stemming from the shooting.
In a petition directed at Yale’s president, students put the shooting in a broader national context, referencing the “epidemic of police violence and police brutality in this country,” including shootings by other officers.
“Too many tragedies have transpired at the hands of armed campus police. In 2015, Sam DuBose, an unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer. In 2017, Scout Schultz, a student of Georgia Tech and President of the Pride Alliance, was killed by campus police during a period of distress due to mental illness. Armed campus police are a risk to the students they are sworn to protect and to the communities in which schools reside.”
The Yale campus officer has been placed on leave pending the results of the investigation. Yale’s president said the university would conduct its own investigation once the state police and state’s attorney’s office complete theirs. [Eric Levenson / CNN]
The 2015 killing of Samuel DuBose by a white University of Cincinnati police officer occurred off-campus when the officer stopped DuBose, a city resident who was not a student. DuBose’s killing focused attention on campus police and the questions of whether they should be armed, where they should be allowed to patrol, and whether universities should have their own police at all. When the local prosecutor announced murder charges against the officer, he said, “I don’t think a university should be in the policing business.” [Susan Svrluga, Nick Anderson, and Mark Berman / Washington Post]
Yet most universities are, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Virtually all public universities with student bodies of 2,500 or more, and more than 90 percent of private universities that size or larger, have police forces. Most universities allow campus officers to carry guns, and at most colleges, campus police have the power to patrol and arrest in areas next to campus. [Libby Nelson / Vox] (Shortly after DuBose’s killing, the University of Cincinnati announced that its officers would patrol and make stops only on campus. [Kevin Williams, Wesley Lowery, and Mark Berman / Washington Post])
Following DuBose’s killing, Libby Nelson wrote in Vox about the history of campus police in the U.S. Yale was the first university to have police, when two New Haven officers were assigned to the campus part-time in 1894. For decades, few universities followed suit. That changed in the 1960s, when universities responded to campus protests by creating their own departments rather than calling in local police. [Libby Nelson / Vox]
Now the debate about armed campus police continues. In Maryland, the legislature recently passed a bill authorizing Johns Hopkins to become the first private university in the state to have its own armed police force. Several public universities have their own police but Hopkins, as a private institution, had a security force of 1,000 guards but no armed police. The bill, as passed in the Senate, requires the university to get the consent of its neighbors for its officers to patrol outside campus limits. The change faced substantial opposition from Johns Hopkins students and faculty members, but is expected to be signed into law by the governor. [Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun]
In Oregon, on the other hand, efforts are underway to disarm police at two large public universities. Last year, a Portland State University officer shot and killed a man who was trying to break up a fight outside a local bar. The university has defended its armed police force, arguing that the Legislature should play no part in the decision. [Meerah Powell / OPB]
An incident last week at Barnard College in New York was a reminder of the problems with policing on-campus, even when officers are unarmed. Alexander McNab, a senior at Columbia University, was heading into a Barnard library (under an arrangement between Columbia and Barnard, students at one institution have access to facilities at the other), when Barnard police officers asked him for his student ID. When McNab, who is Black and has felt profiled by campus police before, refused to provide this, the officers became aggressive and pinned him down against a counter. [Sharon Otterman / New York Times]
Multiple students pointed to the incident as one of many examples of how Black students must prove their identities. “This is not an isolated incident, and we urge the school to not consider it as such,” said one student. Another told the New York Times: “I think as [B]lack students, we are heavily racialized, and we are not seen as people who are supposed to be here.” [Sharon Otterman / New York Times]