(Content note: This article contains descriptions of anti-Black police violence.)
In April 2019, Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, a young, Black, unarmed couple, were sitting in their car singing love songs a few miles away from Yale University’s campus in New Haven. Suddenly, a Yale police officer, accompanied by a Hamden police officer, began to shoot into their car. The officers’ bullets flew into Washington’s spine and face.
“Black people matter! Black lives matter! New Haven matters!” Days later, we proclaimed these chants in the streets of a campus lined with Yale police. The Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY) and New Haven organizers delivered over 1,000 complaints to demand the arrest of the Yale officer involved. Local activists decried a “triple occupation”: The majority Black and brown city is patrolled by officers from New Haven, Hamden, and Yale. The incident showed how campus police departments physically and aggressively guard the Ivory Tower.
In 1894, Yale became the first university with a private police force. The first officers were commissioned to mediate tensions between city officers and Yale’s white male students rioting over football games, and to “protect campus property.” In the 1970s, many campuses established police forces claiming to shield majority-white student protesters from violent municipal force. Today, campus police arrest student protesters, as with recent cases at Harvard and the University of Minnesota.
The Yale Police Department (YPD), armed with lethal force, is like many around the country that maintain a vague mission to protect a university “community,” often endangering residents as well as Black students. With few accountability measures, the actions of these forces are clouded. Residents in policed communities lack avenues to demand justice. These departments are prolific: According to data compiled in 2012, 92% of public colleges and universities and 38% of their private counterparts have sworn and armed campus police officers. Campus departments made over 65,000 arrests in 2016.
In defense of an elite class, campus police at over 900 colleges patrol jurisdictions with populations unaffiliated with universities. In cities where universities rarely pay property taxes, they criminalize residents who have a right to roam their own neighborhoods. The University of Chicago patrols 65,000 residents, 55,000 of whom are unaffiliated with the university.
Campus police also narrow their “protection” to a racialized definition of the university community, one that sees Black students as outsiders. YPD racially profiled Ashtan Towles, a co-author of this piece, questioning her status as a student and asking if her ID had expired as she attempted to enter a dormitory. In 2015, YPD held a Black student, Tahj Blow, at gunpoint as he jogged home from the library, a scene reminiscent of the recent shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. His father, The New York Times columnist Charles Blow, wrote: “Had I come close to losing him? Triggers cannot be unpulled. Bullets cannot be called back.”
Black students nationally face the emotional and physical toll of constant harassment and surveillance. Bearing witness to the shootings of Black Americans, and facing personal and collective trauma, Black students wonder: “Could it be me?”
The violence of campus police extends across the country. In 2015, the University of Cincinnati Police Department (UCPD) murdered Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old Black man unaffiliated with the university, at a traffic stop. UCPD had pursued an aggressive traffic strategy, known to be racially discriminatory. Earlier this year, Harvard police screamed at Tyrique Simmons, a Black homeless resident, to get on the ground and rolled him over to arrest him for allegedly trespassing. The accused officer had been involved in three prior incidents with Black homeless men in a five-month span.
These incidents echo a larger trend. Since campus police began reporting crime data, their arrests of Black adults have increased while arrests of white adults have declined.
What’s worse, campus police have fewer accountability measures than municipal police. Most states don’t require private university forces to adhere to open record laws. Campus police officers, while sworn in by local departments, are classified as university employees and remain unaccountable to the general public. They are shielded by both qualified immunity and privatized records.
And it’s not that they use weaker force. Over 130 campus departments have military-grade weapons, including rifles and mine-resistant vehicles, amounting to over $12 million worth of Pentagon equipment.
These departments are undemocratic in their very design, explicitly stating who is deserving of their “protection.” Their borders are blurred. With campuses growing and university boundaries constantly shifting, how does a department pledge to protect one class of people over (or even from) another?
There’s no reform that can subvert this harmful and exclusionary purpose. These police serve the college elite. They consider their own Black students to be threats. If colleges truly want to protect Black students and communities, they must disband their private police forces and invest in a vision of public safety based on cooperation and trust.