The Danger of Militarizing Campus Police Forces

Universities and colleges are searching for ways to keep their students safe from violence, but excessive military equipment for police is not the answer.

Earlier this year, Martese Johnson was out with friends when he was confronted by University of Virginia law enforcement officials. He was beaten, handcuffed, and charged with resisting arrest, obstructing justice without threats of force, and profane swearing or intoxication in public.

Several months later, I had the opportunity to speak with Martese. “You have a unique perspective that not many people have had,” I told him. “You were a hashtag and survived.”

Now, across the country minimally trained campus law enforcement officers are increasingly becoming armed with military surplus equipment through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program. Over 100 U.S.-based colleges and universities have received excess military equipment since 1998 through the program including humvees, teargas, modified grenade launchers, M14’s, M16’s and shotguns. In Texas, eight academic institutions have some combination of mine resistant vehicles, M16s, M14s and shotguns.

In response to tragedies on campus, such as the Virginia Tech shooting —and most recently, the shooting at Umpqua Community College — we have seen schools adopt protocol for an active shooter situation. Many have pulled from the Department of Homeland Security’s Run, Hide, Fight, a policy that encourages those in danger to seek safe space and to call 911. Police are actively trained to respond to shooters on campus, often working directly with schools to act effectively.

Militarizing minimally trained campus law enforcement officers is not the solution.

Recently, the University of Cincinnati came under fire when one of their campus police officers shot and killed Samuel Dubose, an unarmed black man pulled over for a routine traffic stop. The instance highlighted the possibilities of what can happen when minimally trained campus police are given jurisdiction in surrounding communities. 70 percent of colleges and universities have jurisdiction off campus.

Many of these schools, predominantly white institutions, have tasked their campus law enforcement to police the surrounding local area — which often have different needs than the student population.

At Detroit’s Wayne State University, 20 percent of the students are black but campus police officers have jurisdiction in surrounding neighborhoods, which are nearly 70 percent black. To make matters worse, these police have employed the broken windows model of policing in these neighborhoods, a tactic that criminalizes black and poor communities of color.

The University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) is an institution tasked to defend the “interests of the college or university.” Empowered by the Private College Campus Police Act, the UCPD — with a history of racial profiling and tension in the community — polices a total of 65,000 people despite 50,000 of them not being affiliated with the university.

Nearly two-thirds of campus police at private schools across the country lack official accreditation despite being trained with or by other forms of law enforcement. This is a loophole that for the most part has rendered academic institutions exempt from transparency laws, making it difficult to even know the full scope of the issue. But stories like Johnson’s are all too common.

It would be shameful if we turned spaces of learning and growth into ones where students and those around them have to constantly look over their shoulder, question their personal safety, and watch out for the humvees rolling by on and around campus. Military weapons and equipment have no place at colleges and universities, and this issue warrants greater concern and action before another student becomes a hashtag — and before it is too late.

Dante Barry and Pete Haviland-Eduah are executive director and communications director, respectively, for the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice via Ebony.com

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