Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are Campus Police Necessary?

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.

And it's worth noting that college administrators aren't acting alone here. The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) was formed in 1958 in order to "discuss job challenges and mutual problems, and to create a clearinghouse for information and issues shared by campus public safety directors across the country." The IACLEA even has a corporate partnership program, which helps with "strategic initiatives" to help advance the "educational mission" of the IACLEA. It's refreshing how blunt the cops are here about their "educational mission", i.e. to instill a sense of respect for existing power, etc. See below:
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.


-sf said...

What about the argument that if you abolish campus police, city police will have to patrol campuses? Surely you'd prefer a police force who are trained to deal with students, who can build a rapport with students, and who aren't exposed to the stresses of real criminals. I'd much rather have a police force that is used to dealing with drunk kids as opposed to cops who are used to dealing with armed robbers or drug dealers (you know the real drug dealers, not some stoner selling weed out of their dorm room). I'd imagine you'd have a lot more police brutality on campus from city cops. Unless of course you're suggesting that campuses not be policed at all, which is a terrible idea considering just how large campuses can be. Just look at the sexual assaults and petty crime at occupy protests all over the country and you'll see why self-policing is just not an option.

t said...

Hmmm. You seem to reiterate the argument, contested in the body of the post, that campus police are there to protect students. In other words you ask: if the campus police aren't there to keep order and protect students, who will?

I reject the premise of that question. The campus police aren't there to do those things, and, in fact, they do those things rather poorly as it is. And even if they did do those things in an adequate way, which they don't, they also play a particular function (revealed for all to see by recent events) in maintaining existing power relations on campuses. They are a conservative force that resists change and enforces the power of the administration.

Oxford had no campus police until 2003. Are we really to believe that there was some crisis on that campus before 2003 wherein assault and robbery were rampant and out of control (merely because there were no campus cops to "dispense justice")?

-sf said...

You actually had the Oxford example backwards:

There were University cops UNTIL 2003, and since 2008 CITY cops have had to patrol campus. I will concede that the above article supports your argument, since much of the logic for reinstating the cops was a bevy of political activism and associated vandalism.

I still think your overall argument is weak. If most of what University Police did was suppress political dissent, then you would have support for the argument that the primary, or at least a major, function of University Police is to suppress dissent. Just because they do that in highly visible displays, doesn't mean that this is the norm. In fact I don't remember police ever suppressing dissent during my college days. What I do remember is almost weekly cases of alcohol poisoning on weekends (and one on a Wednesday), at least monthly muggings, plenty of agro frat dudes (one case of anti-gay hate crime), constant sexual assaults, and a story about how the campus police force was created in response to a city police shooting of a student (who knows if thats true). The only time I ever dealt with the cops was when they were called to break up a fight (we were boxing OK!) or when I chatted em up on 420 one year. I know personal experiences are not always consistent with the average experience, but I completely disagree that students can take care of things themselves without policing. This American Life had an episode on Penn State in 2009 where in one act they show exactly how effective policing can be to reign in all the petty, but common, criminality that inevitably occurs on campuses:

Campus police are absolutely a cudgel used by administrators to suppress dissent, but is that even close to their primary function (because if it were then they truly would be unnecessary)? Just because crime exists without policing doesn't mean that police are unnecessary. Its like saying this proves that spending money on education is a waste of money:

-sf said...

One last thing: Doesn't your argument which states that police ineffectiveness in combating sexual assault suggests that police are not there to combat sexual assault also mean that ineffectiveness at suppressing dissent would mean police are not there to suppress dissent. If you ask me, they failed hard core at suppressing dissent; it must be that they are not there to suppress dissent at all!

t said...

Given all that's happened in the world lately, I find it a little surprising that you're so sanguine about the function of the police.

To say that they are basically there to "serve and protect" is nonsense. If that were true, why would they brutalize and violently attack students? In periods of increased struggle, the basic function they play all along is revealed.

A monarchy that is not facing a revolt may not need to use very much repression to stabilize it's dominance. You seem to want to say that in such periods of relative stability, when the regime uses little repression to maintain dominance, we should infer that the regime (and it's security apparatus) really isn't that repressive after all. But that's a profound mistake. It misses the *conditional* nature of freedoms we're granted by the powers that be--e.g. you are free, but only the condition that you don't actually try to challenge existing relations of power, etc.

Basically, I think you're missing the bigger picture here. What about how power is distributed on campus? Do you have any views about how campus power is related to power in society writ large? Do you have any line on the corporatization of universities? Do you have any views about the student uprisings, occupations, rebellions and take-overs of universities in the 1960s? Isn't it plausible to think that all of that resistance provoked changes in policies coming from above on university campuses?

Once we get clear on how to answer these questions, we have a context within which to make sense of campus police as a piece of a larger institution in our society. Shorn of all context, your objections have a degree of surface-level plausibility. But set against the factual background conditions I think your worries seem less plausible.

I stand corrected about Oxford--I got misinformation on that somewhere along the line in my cursory internet research for the post. But the fact remains that campus police haven't always existed. Many universities in Britain simply have no campus police at all. And they're doing just fine. They aren't dens of sin, crime and darkness. They do alright without the supposedly "civilizing role" of campus cops. There are other examples as well.

If you're worried about drunken fighting, sexual assault, or drug abuse, I think you're barking up the wrong tree by suggesting that the cops are the answer. Abolish the Fraternity system instead. Fight the culture of sexism that makes rape a commonly committed and uncommonly prosecuted crime. Make drug abuse a public health issue rather than one of "criminal justice".

I just guess I'm not sure I've heard anything that makes clear why campus cops are necessary.

Anonymous said...

Not only are campus cops not necessary, but cops in general aren't necessary either.

-sf said...

Good stuff, I think we're getting somewhere here.

I'm sanguine about the function of police because I recognize that US cops aren't mowing down people in the streets (see comments on the post about Israel v Arab world for more). Its just pepper spray... I know, I know its more than just pepper spray, its excessive force, its assault, its absolutely brutality on the part of the police who were too lazy to try to pry students apart for arrests they probably shouldn't have been making in the first place. But its not like we're dealing with basiji here you know? Anyway, I'll concede that is an argument that can be rather offputing. Don't worry it only informs part of my reasoning.

You ask why would the police brutalize? I would ask why don't they brutalize in the vast majority of cases of people challenging existing relations of power? Usually the brutality is associated with a degree of violence on the part of the protesters; what makes the UC Davis example so egregious is the complete and total lack of violence by the students and the gross over reaction of the cops. I would also question the degree to which this is a systemic function of the police rather than an individual abuse of authority (admittedly encouraged by the systemic culture within the police)? That we can point to individuals like "Tony Baloney" and this UC Davis cop, suggests the latter.

As far as conditional freedom. This may be a big philosophical difference but I'll touch on it. Yes our liberties are conditional, but so is the power of the government. This is the social contract: we endow the government with certain proscribed powers while reserving for ourselves certain proscribed liberties. This certainly creates a tension between civil liberties and government power. I think where we differ in our prescriptions to resolving this tension is the degree to which we want to amend the social contract. Can power relations be challenged without completely tearing up the social contract? I say yes, we can assert that the government only works for the ruling class and that must change without dismantling the institutions (like the police) that are required for proper functioning of the government.

-sf said...

Admittedly I am not looking at the big picture as it relates to this particular incident. I hadn't much thought about power on campus, but I don't think students should have the majority of it (more below). I want to briefly address corporatization of campuses. I don't necessarily know what you mean by that term, but I'll address what google told me about the "problem." Apparently I'm part of the problem as an academic research scientist! So the argument that google has pointed me towards is that instead of focusing on educating students, much more money, and thus attention, is spent on activities like research. Not to be too snarky here, but excuse us for trying to prolong human life and end human suffering. Obviously research endeavors are going to be more expensive than gathering students together 2-3x a week for an hour long lecture and grading their work. Everyone should welcome the money that corporations put into these efforts, as long as that money does not tarnish the scientific process, and there are plenty of safeguards against that. I believe the primary purpose of a university is not to educate students, but rather to advance human knowledge. This is why the other aspect of corporatizing universities -for profit colleges -are bad. They treat universities as factories that churn out employable people as you describe. For-profit colleges also give weight to the erroneous assumption among some students that they are customers and the "customer is always right." I don't think students should have that much power. Undergrads are at universities four years at a time, and most don't engage that much with the universities after graduations. Giving too much power to students will only make universities responsive to their short term concerns, not the long-term well being of the university. Furthermore, universities are not just playgrounds for promising minds, they're employers of faculty and support staff. Faculty, especially those engaged in tasks other than just teaching, should have a say in excess to both students and administrators over the policies of the universities. The names and reputations of faculty depend on the long-term success of the university they are affiliated with, and faculty demonstrate the most long-term commitment to the university. As both a recent student and educator, I can attest to the often fickle association undergraduate students have with their studies and even their universities (football passions being the exception). Does this mean that students should have no say about tuition hikes? Not at all, they should be doing exactly what they are doing right now. But do I think that "corporatization" is a serious problem facing universities? No. I'm more concerned about the lack of value of a university education. I think part of the reason for that is that kids come to school with the expectation that their investment in education will entitle them to a nicer job, without thinking about how their degrees can help them contribute to society at large.

In conclusion, yes it is plausible that resistance provoked changes from above, but plausible does not equal factual, or even likely. If you look at how police behave as a whole, you will see that it is an intrinsically oppressive institution, but one that is necessary and can be responsive to the needs of society if the government is actually for the people by the people (which I'm not saying it is). If "anonymous" doesn't like cops, she can move to Somalia. I hear the beaches Arrrrrr quite lovely (Somali pirate joke. anyone?)

-sf said...

To the point regarding campus action in the 60s, I think an excessive focus on campus as the vehicle for change corrupts the academic integrity of universities. A whole generation of academics sees their scholarship as primarily political. While I agree that everything has political consequences, scholarship should be about seeking truth not winning the "war by other means" that is politics. It also hurts the political movement that a campus rallies behind, because it keeps it focused on campus, not society as a whole (this debate being illustrative of that).
In conclusion, yes it is plausible that resistance provoked changes from above, but plausible does not equal factual, or even likely. If you look at how police behave as a whole, you will see that it is an intrinsically oppressive institution, but one that is necessary and can be responsive to the needs of society if the government is actually for the people by the people (which I'm not saying it is). If "anonymous" doesn't like cops, she can move to Somalia. I hear the beaches Arrrrrr quite lovely (Somali pirate joke. anyone?)

Hank said...

-sf: You talk like someone who's never had to deal w/ police. You've never watched your friends get woken up in the morning w/ physical violence from police, get kicked out of a public park by cops because "someone reported a robbery" when in actuality you were getting kicked out of the park for being homeless. I would like for you to try a stint as a homeless person and tell me how much you like cops when you're done.

The "lawlessness" of Somalia has nothing to do with the fact that there are no cops there. It has to do with the fact that armed gangsters are running the country and that the people there are quite impoverished. You know that there are cops in Mexico, too, right? Where, in Ciudad Juárez, there have been over four thousand women murdered over the past ten years, yet most of these cases have gone unsolved?

Cops don't make you safer -- knowing how to fight back does. Your relative safety is not a result of the fact that America has cops. It's a result of the fact that you have money. The most a cop is going to be able to do for you if something happens to you is assuage your hurt feelings.

BTW, this is the "anonymous" that posted before. I have posted here in the past, but lately when I try to post from my Google account, it tries to make me get a Blogger account, which I don't want.