Student activists are demanding their universities re-examine their relationships with campus and noncampus police after George Floyd, a black man living in Minneapolis, was killed by a white police officer on Memorial Day.
Student organizations, workers’ unions and individual activists at dozens of universities are calling on administrations to cut ties with local police or disband campus police departments, saying that policing institutions enact violence upon black people and uphold white supremacy. College administrations for the most part have resisted calls to end relationships with local municipal police forces, instead making promises to reform training practices and decrease the need for police presence on campus.
The number of groups making demands has snowballed since the University of Minnesota agreed to end some partnerships with the Minneapolis Police Department, a change that includes no longer contracting with the department for large events or specialized services. The university was responding to student activists, led by Jael Kerandi, the university’s first African American student body president, who called on the university to cease all partnerships with the MPD.
"We have lost interest in discussion, community conversations, and 'donut hours,'" Kerandi's statement read. "We no longer tolerate the ineffective, inconsistent 'bias training' that rarely serves as more than a fig leaf."
Colleges often contract with local police to provide security for athletic events, graduations, concerts and other large events and for specialized services like K-9 units that can detect explosives and illicit substances. Sometimes college-police relationships are less formal, such as mutual assistance agreements between colleges and local police or simply a relationship of mutual praise.
Demands at some universities, including Northwestern University, Columbia University and New York University, have taken the form of open letters, signed on to by numerous groups.
Northwestern University's black student union, For Members Only, has circulated a statement signed by over 150 student groups and 4,900 individuals asking the university to end its many ties with the Evanston Police Department and the Chicago Police Department. Requests include disallowing local police at Northwestern University protests and ending joint patrols on university property. The statement additionally asks Northwestern to disband campus police and invest in black students.
At Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, the Black and Latinx Student Caucus wrote an open letter, endorsed by more than 20 other organizations, calling for the school to end contracts with the New York Police Department, among other demands such as donations to bail funds, curricular changes and an increase in the number of black faculty members.
"Racism and police brutality are prominent public health issues, and together we can take important steps towards health equity," the letter read.
On Thursday, Columbia said it responded to students’ letter but would not share its response publicly as it was considered private correspondence.
More than 85 graduate student unions, faculty unions and undergraduate groups at dozens of universities have signed on to a cross-campus statement calling for their respective administrations to cut ties with police. The statement includes many signatories from New York and California.
Policing has not typically been a focus for academic unions, especially since police are themselves heavily unionized. But student union leaders say they are following the example and footsteps of black leadership.
Andrew Dobbyn, chair of the graduate student union chapter at the State University of New York system's Stony Brook University, said the union signed on to the cross-campus statement in solidarity. But he also noted that it is not in a union's material interests to align with or tolerate policing.
"This idea that the police are working-class people and that they're in unions just like us is absurd," Dobbyn said. "They're essentially cartels of guard labor designed to protect the interests of the rich and powerful and to enforce white supremacy."
At Johns Hopkins University, students have renewed their call to halt the university’s creation of a private campus police force, which was approved by the Maryland State Senate in April 2019. A year ago, student protests against the private police force culminated in an occupation of the Johns Hopkins administrative building, ending when Baltimore police arrested seven protesters inside.
In a recent statement, the university said it will continue to move forward with its plans to create its own police force. The 15-member Johns Hopkins Police Department Accountability Board will meet for the first time next week, and the university is looking for a vice president of global security for Johns Hopkins University and Health System.
Some institutions have responded to activists' calls by saying that it's difficult to exclude local police departments or end relationships with them.
Many New York University groups signed the cross-campus statement, and the NYU graduate union and NYU Incarceration to Education Coalition put out a demand letter of their own.
NYU responded, saying that New York City emergency services, including the New York City Police Department, must respond in “the event of serious emergencies or crimes at NYU or safety conditions beyond the scope of our Department of Public Safety.” The university’s officers are not peace officers or sworn officers -- they are unarmed, they have no law enforcement powers and they have no powers of arrest. Therefore, the New York Police Department needs to respond to emergencies or crimes, said a spokesman, John Beckman. (This paragraph has been updated with additional information from Beckman.)
Because of the campus’s downtown location, the university says there’s little it can do to regulate the comings and goings of New York City police.
“That said, as a rule, the presence of the NYPD is not common in NYU's midst -- they have no standing presence, and their appearances tend to be limited to responses to emergency calls or to the annual all-University Commencement, which is held in Yankee Stadium,” the university said.
At the University of Louisville, Black Student Union president Maliya Homer on Sunday sent a letter to university president Neeli Bendapudi and university police chief Gary Lewis. In it, she demanded on behalf of the Black Student Union that the university police department rescind its relationship with the Louisville Metro Police Department “expeditiously.”
“There is no amount of faux insightful conversation, civility discourse, student group programming and partnerships that will heal an institution that was created to disenfranchise, destroy and CATCH us,” Homer wrote. “We cannot and will not panel-discussion our way out of this. The relationship between ULPD and LMPD was described as ‘fruitful,’ and while that may be the case in regard to ‘safeguarding the assets of the university’ -- that is not the case when it comes to students, faculty and staff. Nothing about being in closer proximity to state sanctioned violence makes us any safer.”
Homer wrote in response to Floyd’s death and the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black emergency medical technician who was shot and killed by LMPD officers in her home on March 13.
Bendapudi responded to Homer’s letter Wednesday.
“Your request for us to immediately terminate our relationship with LMPD would not make our campus or its constituents safer, and it would be an insufficient answer to a very complex problem,” Bendapudi wrote. “The harder work in a necessary partnership is to change, mold and evolve the partnership and the partner to best facilitate the university’s need without compromising our values.”
Instead, the university will take steps to ensure ULPD is the lead law enforcement agency on campus, complete an equity audit of its criminal justice programs, reduce the need for LMPD officers at large events, provide de-escalation and cultural sensitivity training to all partnering officers, and develop and teach social justice curricula at its Southern Police Institute.
Bendapudi emphasized that students should hold her and Lewis accountable for police actions on campus.
“We are not going to say, ever, ‘Well, that was LMPD,’” she said. “We are going to say that you can hold Chief Lewis responsible, and you can hold me responsible, because [ULPD] are going to be the lead investigators.”