Should Campuses Defund the Police?
George Floyd’s death has prompted calls for campuses to “defund the police” and/or sever ties with local law enforcement, but are those moves knee-jerk reactions that will backfire?
Every so often, a tragedy in America prompts schools and universities to make major changes in how they protect their campus communities. Some of those changes have resulted in significant improvements to campus public safety.
For example, immediately after the Virginia Tech massacre, there was significant focus on mass notification. Now, thanks to the Clery Act, which was amended after the Virginia Tech mass shooting to require college campuses to send out emergency notifications during life-threatening events, practically every institution of higher education in America has at least one alert system, according to Campus Safety’s 2020 Emergency Notification Survey.
However, some of the changes implemented after other tragedies have been ill-conceived. For example, the Sandy Hook and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas mass shootings prompted some school districts to arm some of their teachers. Additionally, these tragedies, as well as that of Virginia Tech, have led some in the campus security sector to focus almost exclusively on active shooter response at the expense of other training, drills, exercises and solutions that save many more lives.
Fast forward to today, and the in-custody death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer is another tragedy that will most likely result in major changes to school and university security. It has prompted calls for campuses to “defund the police” and/or sever ties with local law enforcement, and some colleges and school districts have heeded those calls.
They include school districts in Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, Denver and Seattle. In higher ed, the University of Minnesota has limited its use of Minneapolis Police Department officers, while UMass Boston will no longer allow Massachusetts State Police to use the school’s campus as a staging area for protests and events. Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts has stopped hiring off-duty Worcester police officers for details. It has also suspended its policy requiring a law enforcement officer be present during large student events.
But are these good decisions? I’m not sure.
After reviewing the details of some of the demands by campus communities to do away with their police departments or school resource officers or to sever ties with local law enforcement, it appears that much of what’s being demanded might already be in place, at least to some extent, at many schools and universities.
Adopt These Practices If Your Campus Hasn’t Already
Campus Safety magazine has for years been covering many of the promising practices that are being demanded right now by civil rights activists. These include:
- Mental health training: Staff and officers learn how to appropriately and effectively identify and respond to students, parents, visitors and other employees who are struggling with depression, suicide ideation, addiction and more.
- Verbal de-escalation training: Employees and officers learn how to de-escalate a situation before it becomes physically violent. Such training includes developing empathy for the individual acting out, avoiding exhibiting non-verbal cues that could be threatening, setting and enforcing reasonable limits and more.
- Implicit/unconscious bias training: This training helps officers and other campus and district staff members identify their own internal biases, which affect how they interact with others. For example, when we witness everyday activities, such as someone taking a nap in the student union, are we attributing ulterior motives to one race that we aren’t attributing to others who do the same thing? Are we punishing minority students (as well as students with disabilities) more severely for things like talking back to their teachers or dress code violations?
- Sexual violence training: This training teaches staff members how to identify sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, stalking and domestic/dating violence and receive a report of an incident. Trauma-informed sexual assault training teaches law enforcement officers how to effectively respond to victims and investigate their cases.
- Community policing: These programs enable campus public safety departments to develop and maintain relationships with everyone on campus, but especially with groups that have historically had a challenging relationship with law enforcement.
Of course, no one is claiming these practices are perfect. In light of George Floyd’s death, they certainly should be reviewed to see if they can be improved. The campuses that have adopted these practices but are still experiencing problems most likely need to reevaluate their approaches. Are they committing the time, funding and resources these efforts require? If they have only half-heartedly adopted these practices merely as a PR move, then I can see how they might be experiencing significant push-back.
But schools and universities that have already fully adopted and committed to these and other promising practices might actually serve as models for the other campus public safety departments and traditional law enforcement agencies that are currently struggling.
Funding, Resources Pose Big Challenges
Of course, funding and resources are key factors in all of this. Our nation as a whole has done a lousy job of funding mental health programs, social services and school nurses. (We’ve done a better job of supporting campus public safety, but the funding can in no way be described as optimal. Understaffing continues to pose a significant issue for school and university public safety, security and emergency management departments, according to Campus Safety’s 2018 Salary and Benefits Survey.)
As a result, our districts and universities have individuals with a wide variety of chronic issues that have festered and grown to unmanageable (and unimaginable) proportions that then often require law enforcement intervention. When things reach this point, is it any wonder that situations sometimes don’t turn out well? And when they don’t, the responding police officers are often blamed. When the situation is successfully resolved (which is most of the time), the officers usually don’t get much credit or media attention.
I’ve said for years now that campus counselors, social service programs and nurses desperately need more financial support. However, taking away resources from campus public safety (which is underresourced already) to pay for mental health, social services and nurses is bound to drive a wedge between these stakeholders when, now more than ever, they need to be working closely together. Instead, our nation as a whole needs to put on our “big boy and big girl pants” and find the courage to open our pocketbooks and provide adequate funding for all of these stakeholders. They all provide a valuable service on campus.
Police officer presence on campus is often appropriate because the majority of violent incidents are caused by students, not by outsiders. When a weapon, especially a gun or a bomb, is involved, most administrators and teachers don’t have the training to address this issue properly or safely. This issue is particularly a risk in areas that allow students, teachers and parents to have guns on campus.
Counselors, nurses and social workers must also be present so they can foster the development of a supportive and emotionally safe environment, as well as address issues before they escalate. These staff members can help schools navigate the gray areas associated with student discipline and mental/behavioral health so that schools can avoid the zero-tolerance policies that do more harm than good.
Mutual Aid Agreements Are Critical
Getting back to the issue of funding, one of the more troubling aspects of the George Floyd protests is the demand for some colleges and school districts to no longer work with local law enforcement. Mutual aid agreements between campus and local police help keep campus public safety costs down because the agreements enable two (or more) departments to share resources. If campuses do away with these agreements, they can expect their public safety costs to increase.
Additionally, if campus public safety doesn’t work with local law enforcement on training and help them with things such as learning the layout of the campus, during active shooter attacks, which are statistically rare but do happen with greater frequency in America, local police will be much less effective in rendering aid to the school or university. When this (or something much worse) happens, then you’ll see the pendulum swing back where parents are clamoring for more law enforcement on campus. Litigation and large payouts to victims and victims’ families will inevitably follow.
Needless to say, I have serious concerns about colleges and school districts doing away with their mutual aid agreements with local police departments. That being said, if the local agency is stubbornly refusing to adopt mental health, verbal de-escalation, unconscious bias and sexual violence officer training as well as community policing or is just giving those programs lip service, then a campus or district may have no choice but to sever ties with it.
Before that happens, however, the best option is to methodically review a campus or district’s mutual aid agreements to determine which ones may need to be tweaked or overhauled or — as only a last resort — terminated. The decision needs to be made on a campus-by-campus or district-by-district basis and not as a knee-jerk reaction.
Hire the Right Officers, Address the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’
Another aspect that must be revisited is officer recruitment. Some campus police officers have no business being on a K-12 or college campus because they don’t have the right demeanor to work with children and young adults. School and university public safety departments need to hire officers with excellent people skills and judgment, as well as the ability to communicate appropriately and respectfully.
The task of hiring the right officers, however, has been difficult recently due to the U.S. economy experiencing full employment (that is, until the coronavirus pandemic hit this spring). Additionally, depending on where the campus or district is located, competition for good officers can be tough.
Once an officer is hired, he or she must also be trained to break through the “blue wall of silence,” which is the informal rule among many police officers to not “snitch” on another officer when he or she commits errors, misconduct or crimes, including police brutality. Much like bystander intervention that encourages students to intervene when they observe a situation where sexual violence or bullying is occurring, campuses must encourage and even require campus police and security officers to intervene and come forward when they see wrongdoing by their colleagues.
Find the Right Balance
Like past tragedies, I’m certain both valuable and ill-advised changes will result from George Floyd’s death. The silver lining from all of this is that our nation is talking about racism in a whole new way… a way that I hope creates lasting positive change.
It is my hope that we’ll eventually find a better balance that addresses our nation’s history of systemic racism and improves public safety. Both goals are not mutually exclusive. Addressing one will help address the other.