At my college, campus police were commonplace. For most of my time as student, it never occurred to me to question their existence or their authority. Like the classrooms or the library, I assumed that the university police had a justifiable (perhaps even necessary) role to play on campus.
What led me to question their role was political activism. We're constantly told what a "free" country we live in, but you learn how deeply conditional this freedom is when you actually try to change the way things are. That is, we're "free" to do as we please on the condition that we don't... protest, demand reforms from ruling elites, organize ourselves, assemble with large groups of fellow citizens, or otherwise resist existing relations of power. That is, so long as we calmly walk through the shopping mall with a big smile on our face, we're free to do whatever we like. But the minute we gather with others to ask why we're, so to speak, locked inside of a privately-owned shopping mall with rules that we did not choose, we're faced with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Millions of people are seeing the function of the police (campus or otherwise) for what it is. And, with the recent wave of repression on campuses in particular, many are wondering whether campus police are necessary at all.
It's worth noting, before getting any deeper into this question, that universities haven't always had private police forces of their own. Indeed, many universities around the world lack them. In Britain, for example, the vast majority of colleges and universities lack campus police forces. Indeed, before 2003, Oxford had no campus cops. But how is it that Oxford was able to stop itself from sliding into a den of chaos, violence and disorder before 2003? Without a powerful coercive force dedicated to maintaining campus security, how was a war of all against all averted?
These questions are, of course, absurd. But they are part of a common rhetoric of law and order that is used by University administrators (and their loyal police regiments) to justify the need for a coercive security apparatus on campus.
This is exemplified by the interesting stories campus police often tell about themselves to justify their existence. Take the following (disturbing) excerpt from the University of Pittsburgh Police Department's website:
From the very beginning, the University of Pittsburgh Police Department has steadily progressed into a premier state of the art law enforcement agency. With the constant support of the university community, the police department has utilized educational and training opportunities to become a contributing and well-respected part of the community.
In the mid 1950's, the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, which is home to Pitt Campus, experienced the same problems as any other inner city neighborhood throughout the country. Vandalism, theft and parking problems became a concern for the university, and so, the first Pitt Security Department was created. This small group of individuals became the foundation of what is now the University of Pittsburgh Police Department.
In the 1960's, the department dealt with unrest and other civil problems that plagued America. Like all campus police organizations, the University of Pittsburgh Police Officer's were often on the front lines of the conflicts and learned to deal with the students with fairness and authority. By the late 1960's, the university became a state related institution that eventually, in turn authorized police officers with the same powers and duties as Pennsylvania Capitol and Commonwealth Property Police.
In the early 1970's, the department was restructured and grew in number. Pitt's Department of Public Safety, as it was then called was recognized as the third largest police organization in Allegheny County. In 1974, the first acting Chief was named and the agencies official title became the University of Pittsburgh Police Department. Modernization was the theme of the department as computers and state of the art security systems became an integral part of police work.
I was struck by two things in particular about this story (which, as a casual survey of other university police websites reveals, is rather typical). The first is the heavy emphasis on "modernization" and "state of the art" tactics and technology. This fits neatly within the technophilic, robo-cop rhetoric of contemporary representatives of the military-industrial complex. One almost expects Pitt cops to wander around with laser guns and hover-boards, all the better to deter would-be "bad guys" from disturbing the serenity of campus life. This rhetoric of "modernization" is also indicative of the neoliberal turn toward re-establishing structures of authority during the 1970s and 80s by technologically upgrading, militarizing, and growing police forces across the board. It's not for nothing that incarceration rates literally skyrocket starting at the dawn of the neoliberal era. In the aftermath of an era marked by urban revolts, organized revolutionary groupings, strikes and mass protests, it is unsurprising that our rulers decided to resort to increased policing and imprisonment to re-establish "discipline" and deference to their authority.
The second thing is how remarkably blunt the Pitt cops' story is about the 1960s: "In the 1960's, the department dealt with unrest and other civil problems that plagued America. Like all campus police organizations, the University of Pittsburgh Police Officer's were often on the front lines of the conflicts and learned to deal with the students with fairness and authority." "Civil problems plaguing America", huh? What might those "problems" have been? Mass protests and marches, sit-in's against Jim Crow, student occupations of campus buildings, and resistance of all kinds against war, racism and the political/economic domination of the 1%. Predictably, the role of the police was to ride in on horses and re-establish authority by meting out discipline and "fairness" from above.
Combine this view of the 1960s with what campus cops are being asked to do all over the country right now and we see their role for what it is: a bulwark against student/faculty/staff resistance meant to stabilize and enforce the power of administrators on university campuses.
IACLEA has established the Corporate Partnership Program to support the implementation of IACLEA's strategic initiatives, to further its educational mission, and to enhance the ability of campus public safety agencies to protect institutions of higher education. We can tailor a partnership program that meets your company’s values, mission, and business goals.A couple of things come to mind here. First notice the comfortable fit between "company values", "business goals", "corporate partnerships", and the language of "educational mission", "protecting higher education" and so on. Second, on the face of it, why should corporate entities have an interest in involving themselves with campus policing? What shared interests might these two groups have? And through what lens do corporate firms see institutions of higher education? To answer the last question is simply to re-state the basic priorities of the capitalist system: profit-making and the bottom line. The university, from the perspective of capital, is two things: One, a potential factory to manufacture future employees with certain dispositions (docile, obedient, hard-working), competences and skills. Two, a potential threat to the continued reproduction of the capitalist system insofar as universities can (gasp!) lead people to think for themselves, criticize the status quo, and sometimes organize themselves to resist it collectively. Before the 1960s, the potential threat posed by the populations on campuses across the country was largely overlooked by the ruling class. But they have learned well the lessons of that era.
This brings us to the question posed in the title of this post. Are campus cops necessary?
It certainly depends on who you ask. They probably are a necessary factor in the continued corporatization of the university system. And they are surely a powerful tool in the hands of administrators intent on keeping students from rocking the boat.
But are campus cops necessary to further the real mission of universities, namely to facilitate higher learning, human development, free inquiry, and community? No, they are not.
Defenders of campus police are likely to object here in one of two ways. They might take a paternalistic line and say that students are children and, as such, require the disciplinary power of a police force to keep them in line and "on task". Without threat posed by SUV's roaming around campus filled with armed police, students will be unable to look out for their own best interests. Drunkenness, drug abuse, and lawlessness will rule. This argument, be it noted, is pitched more to parents than to the actual residents of college campuses.
Students will be unmoved by this paternalistic nonsense. College students are legal adults, they have the right to vote (and they can be drafted) even if the law restricts them from having a beer until age 21. They often juggle multiple jobs on top of a demanding set of courses. They are also deemed old enough to be saddled with massive amounts of debt. Moreover, many students take it upon themselves to get involved in political organization and "extra curricular" of various kinds. Students don't need a "stern father" looming over them with billy clubs, pepper spray and guns. We can handle ourselves just fine, thank you very much.
The second argument is more subtle than the first. Defenders of campus police can argue that campus police are needed to protect students against robbery, mugging, rape and sexual assault. In fact, they'll say something stronger: without an extensive (and "state of the art") campus police force, these crimes are likely to increase dramatically.
There are, of course, the racist incarnations of this argument that aim to convince well-to-do white parents that their sons and daughters will be "protected" from the people of color living in close proximity to their university. But let's focus here on the problem of rape and sexual assault on campus to see whether there's any merit to the pro-police claim.
First of all, very few (if any) US campuses are without a small army of "modernized" and "state of the art" university cops. Yet, for all that, rape on college campuses is at epidemic levels. The majority of rapes go unreported. Of those that get reported, few press charges against their assailants. Of those that press charges, even fewer actually secure convictions against their assailants. And of those that successfully press chargers the first time round, even fewer see that ruling upheld in a court of appeals. Often the victims of rape are ridiculed, pressured not to continue prosecuting or are forced to endure a drawn-out process that merely exacerbates the pain caused by the assault in the first place. None of that has anything to do with police tactics.
But, of course, all of the above problems have to do with the inability of existing institutions to successfully deal with rape once it has occurred. This to say nothing at all of the campus organizations, norms, and conditions that encourage rape on a wide scale. What do I have in mind? I wont get into all of it, but surely fraternity culture is high on the list. We all know the drill: frat parties invite women with the understanding that the drunker they get, the better. Date-rape drugs are commonplace. All of the norms that prevail in these well-funded and entrenched institutions at US universities tend to reproduce this sordid state of affairs. Another related feature of campus culture that reproduces this problem is the typical media (campus or otherwise) reaction to rapes. The typical response is dismissive, even accusatory, and involves the usual litany of bullshit questions: "what was she wearing?", "how drunk was she?", "did she lead him on unfairly?", etc.
The bottom line is this: rape is a social and political problem, not a law-enforcement problem. Through mass emails detailing crimes on campus, universities often suggest that rape only occurs when a stranger jumps out of a bush to attack a woman walking alone on a dark street. But, in fact, the vast majority of rapes are committed by fellow students and co-workers. That is, the vast majority of rapes occur between people who already know one another.
So how do we make war against the rape crisis on U.S. universities?
Not with campus cops. The first step might be to abolish the Fraternity system. If that's too ambitious, then we could also institute mass education campaigns in which incoming students are taught about rape statistics and how sexist campus culture contributes to them. I'm not talking about giving women prudential advice about how they must always walk in groups at night or whatever. I'm mostly talking about how to educate everyone--especially freshmen--about the social and political causes of the problem and how the victim-blaming "what was she wearing?" nonsense perpetuates it. SlutWalks across the country have already raised many of these issues so that they are fresh in many people's minds. It only remains to pressure universities to change their ways. Another step would be to actually punish rapists on campus. "Yes means yes" policies are helpful in shifting the burden of proof off of women and onto the offender. I can't emphasize enough: none of these changes have anything to do with campus cops. If anything, the discretionary powers of campus police create the possibility of more rapes, not less. If you think I'm being cynical, take a look at the statistics on police sexual assault. The cops are more a part of the problem than they are a part of any viable solution.
So why not abolish campus cops altogether? Their main function is to do the bidding of those empowered by the corporatized status quo of US universities. They exist to prevent the legitimate organization and protest of students, faculty and staff. When struggle escalates enough to actually threaten the power of administrators, the campus cops will be called upon to brutally repress democratic forms of social protest. They do almost nothing to serve and protect students. The fact is that they simply aren't necessary (unless you're a university administrator looking for shock troops to stabilize your power.) Students, faculty and staff simply don't need campus cops. (We don't need a layer of bureaucrats and administrators looming over us either). We can run the university by ourselves, in our interests.
And, let it be known, campus cops ain't cheap. In an era in which we're told that tuition hikes, scholarship cuts, layoffs, and all the rest are "inevitable", I think we'd do well to look at the "state of the art", ultra-modern police forces roaming around campus. The London Review of books reports that the cop that sprayed mace in the faces of protesting students at UC Davis made himself $110,000, which is more than all but the most highly-paid professors. UC Davis employs over 101 police personnel, which is bigger than any university department. Let's leave aside here the related problem of bloated administration and non-academic bureaucracy. Just think about the scholarships that could be funded with the money saved by axing the police force.