Last Wednesday, University of Minnesota president Joan Gable announced in a statement that the university will no longer enlist the Minneapolis Police Department’s services for “additional law enforcement support.” Gable also announced the university will discontinue contracting with the department for “additional support” needed for university events, including football games, and any specialized services, such as “K-9 explosive detection units.”
The divestment arrives on the heels of the gruesome killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident who died after MPD officer Derek Chauvin was seen with his knee on Floyd’s neck during an arrest May 25. Floyd’s last words as he cried out for his mother were all too familiar: “I can’t breathe.” While the department would later report Floyd’s death as a “medical incident,” years of evidence to the contrary, as well as eyewitness accounts that include a widely circulated video of the encounter, make clear this was no accident.
But while much attention has been given to Gable’s statement, which is among the more powerful actions any postsecondary institution has taken in the wake of police-involved killings, considerably less focus has been given to the student leader who issued the demand of divestment on behalf of the student body in her own letter a day before. On that Tuesday, Jael Kerandi, a black woman and undergraduate student body president at the University of Minnesota, authored a letter addressed to Gable along with other university officials and the campus chief of police. Citing data from the Mapping Police Violence project, Kerandi disclosed the clear racial disparity in which the Minneapolis Police Department especially has killed black people at a rate 13 times that of their white counterparts.
Kerandi also noted the department’s long historical legacy of racism and racial terror, invoking the names of black men and women who have fallen victim to citizen vigilantism and MPD violence since the late 1960s. In concluding her letter, she rightfully dismissed common approaches that the university had taken to engage in dialogue or mediation with police. Instead, and quite unequivocally, she announced the collective demand that the university “cease any partnership with the Minneapolis Police Department immediately.”
In 2015, similar to Kerandi’s action, student demands from 86 institutions called for campus police reform. Those demands explicitly linked policing to institutionalized racism in higher education and revealed a desire from black students and other students of color to be protected from police violence and racism. While some demands expressed critical hope in reforms to ensure protection from police violence and racism, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill expressly called for prison and police abolition. But with the continued flagrant violence toward black people at the hands of police, Kerandi’s final analysis overwhelmingly demonstrates that, far too often, the only relationship possible between police and black and brown people is one that eventually results in death.
To be sure, the concepts of divestment and police abolition are anything but new, although postsecondary institutions have only more recently seriously considered them as a result of student activists’ demands. Students have long advocated for colleges and universities to reassess their relationship to and divest from police as well as prisons. In fact, just two days ago, the Student Government Association at Ohio State University demanded the university cut ties with the Columbus Police Department. In recent years, police abolition has gained broader popularity in the United States as a result of black social movement organizations like the Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100 and the broader collective Movement for Black Lives -- many of which were co-founded by and include college students and young alumni. At the same time, the increased visibility and consumption of digital media depicting the extrajudicial killings of black people has all but legitimized the need for discussing a world without police.
Unfortunately, however, while it is an important model for reimagining higher education, Gable’s strong follow-up to Kerandi’s letter and explicit commitment to divest from MPD is an outlier for postsecondary leaders. What’s more, the announcement itself brings into focus the visible (and invisible) relationships between the institution of policing and higher education.
From the inception of the first campus police department in 1894 at Yale to the numerous armed postsecondary departments across at least 44 states, police on college and university campuses have existed for decades. But despite increased public scrutiny and the documentation of police-involved killings, private institutions, state universities and community colleges are continuing to expand campus policing and partnerships with local law enforcement.
Johns Hopkins University and Mt. San Antonio College recently established fully-fledged police departments. Fresno State University supplements its campus police department with partnerships with three public law enforcement agencies. Even at our own university, the use of the Los Angeles Police Department as “additional security” for students rightfully protesting a talk by xenophobic provocateur Ben Shapiro was an effort financially subsidized by the undergraduate student government.
In part, this espoused need for more localized law enforcement emerged in the wake of the tragic killing of student activists at Kent State in 1970 by the National Guard. However, just a little more than a week later, city and state police shot and killed black student activists at Jackson State University, a historically black institution in Mississippi. These incidents justified a narrative that university-controlled campus police and formalized relationships with local law enforcement are better for students and the campus community. Police scholars contend that university-led policing follows a community-oriented approach, which is to say it is kinder and less aggressive. While campuses are certainly vulnerable to crime and incidents of mass violence, media stories have consistently shown the use of force by police against students of color generally and black students specifically. As such, the inherent contradictions of policing reveal a misplaced focus on individual safety and obscure the prejudicial violence of a deeply racist institution.
Given both the ongoing public visibility of police violence and its impact on and demands from racially minoritized students, colleges and universities are in an important moment in which they should critically interrogate their role in sustaining such an unjust institution. Further, postsecondary institutions must seriously consider divesting from police altogether. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average budget for campus law enforcement is $2.7 million, but that number can be higher, such as the $22 million budget of the University of California Police Department. As state appropriations per student for institutions continue to trend downward, especially in the wave of furloughs and layoffs at colleges and universities across the country, these funds could be better spent to support student services, teaching and learning.
As police abolitionists, we question the espoused value of policing beyond serving as an apparatus for state violence. As higher education scholars who have conducted research on campus racial climate, student-community organizing and policing for nearly a decade, we also question the presence of police in educational contexts in which those they disproportionately brutalize and kill are expected to live, work and learn. In response to these questions, we believe there is an undeniable moral imperative for postsecondary institutions to divest from the use and supplementation of local police departments for law enforcement.
Simultaneously, a parallel investment in structures and resources that humanize and offer dignity to racially minoritized students and communities is desperately needed. This historic moment provides an opportunity to envision new approaches to safety and community well-being that are grounded in compassion and the value of human life. We find this especially important as the contested decisions to reopen campuses this fall are accompanied by policy considerations to heighten surveillance, restrict movement and other tactics consistent with a police state likely to be enforced by law enforcement agencies.
Both the xenophobic, anti-Asian rhetoric associated with COVID-19 as well as its specifically devastating impact on black communities only further stigmatize groups already vulnerable to state control and police brutality. Hence, as higher education news stories continue to highlight pandemic-driven changes, the divestment from police (toward the end of abolition) is an absolutely necessary consideration.