The coronavirus is no longer the biggest back-to-school threat, some college students say. The pandemic has taken a back seat to a new bogeyman: campus police.
Young activists are calling on their colleges and universities to disband in-house law enforcement agencies and cut ties with local police departments as part of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Students recently rallied outside Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow’s home to show support for abolishing the elite institution’s police force, The Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported.
Administrators are also being pressured to cancel contracts with off-campus agencies that provide patrol and event security services. In the days following Floyd’s killing, the University of Minnesota announced it would end its relationship with Minneapolis police.
Overzealous policing could be an issue ripe for reform at some schools — when you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. But even if counselors or college officials are better equipped to resolve some conflicts, there’s still the matter of genuine crime.
The statistic that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college is vastly inflated, as it relies on anonymous student surveys and lumps problematic but nonviolent behaviors in with rape.
But even if it’s closer to 1 in 100, sexual violence is a cause for concern.
In 2018, the last year for which complete data is available, campus police investigated 26 reported rapes at the University of North Carolina, 17 at Duke, 26 at Yale and 23 at UConn. The Clery Act requires all public and private colleges that accept federal funding to disclose annual crime statistics and provide access to campus crime logs.
Ordering police off campus could make rape and sexual assault cases harder to solve. While local police and sheriff’s departments still have jurisdiction, the lack of a regular presence would lengthen response times. Good cops wouldn’t have the opportunity to gain students’ trust and could face skepticism or outright hostility when they seek witnesses.
Not every sexual assault survivor wishes to file a police report. The criminal justice system can be traumatizing, though it’s a far better trier of fact than the widely discredited campus Title IX complaint process. Colleges should provide access to victim advocates and therapists who will help students make the right choices for their individual circumstances. For those who choose to report, police must be at the ready.
Clery Act data show that college campuses aren’t immune to other crimes, from robbery to stalking to domestic violence to aggravated assault to burglary to car theft. These are matters for sworn law enforcement officers with investigative training and arrest powers, not paper-pushing deans or tin-badge security guards who function as little more than a visual crime deterrent.
Counseling is a valuable service colleges can offer, but when laptops disappear from dorm rooms, victims are more concerned with identifying the thief and finding the property than talking about how the experience made them feel.
Instead of abolishing campus police, why not reform them? Requiring private college law enforcement agencies to provide the same level of transparency as their public counterparts is a savvy solution. Demilitarizing campus cops by refusing grants of surplus military vehicles and guns makes sense.
Risk-averse administrators may be tempted to wind down contracts with outside agencies and oversee streamlined campus safety departments. But farming out police duties to well-trained municipal officers adds a layer of legitimacy and gives cops the autonomy they need to do their jobs right.
If campus police go overboard, blame probably rests with the presidents and provosts who supervise them. Sworn officers’ job is to enforce state and local laws, not school rules. If cops with holstered handguns are telling students off for eating in the library, they’re either bona fide busybodies or they’re heeding misguided mandates.
As long as colleges and universities have crime, however, we’ll still need campus crime fighters.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.