I want to see a world in which mental health crises are responded to by counselors and professionals; where noise complaints are met with city workers, not armed cops; where we’ve determined, as a society, that our bonds keep us safe, not the threat of a badge and a gun. When we have a chance to start building this society in our own communities, we must take that chance urgently and carefully. At GW, the well-being of our fellow students necessitates widespread, structural reforms to the GW Police Department, while mitigating the presence of other violent local police forces, to protect students of color as we build up sufficient community control and capacity to abolish the department entirely.
The case for at least significantly reducing the presence of police officers in daily life has been made by hundreds smarter than I am, and I would defer to their arguments. At no point in history, says Mariame Kaba, has police conduct been just toward Black people, and reforms have been proposed and implemented already to no avail. Chokeholds, for instance, were banned in New York the day Eric Garner was killed in a police chokehold. Meanwhile, the true causes of most crime – systematic underemployment, unstable housing, deep residential segregation, to name a few – are well-known but unaddressed. Police were meant to be the foot soldiers of a system that criminalizes poverty and discontentment with the state.
Campus police were the product of avoiding serious consideration about the role of police in American society. In the 1960s, at the height of student-led protests for justice throughout the country, local sheriffs were called in to patrol campuses and committed grave acts of violence against demonstrators. University administrators were broadly opposed both to escalating protests and encroachment by unknown cops, so they lobbied governments to create a legal space for campus-specific police departments. On paper, they receive the same violent training as their peers in municipalities, and are sworn law enforcement with the power to arrest. In practice, they mostly respond to completely nonviolent situations.
And often, these forces abuse their power to do nothing less than terrorize BIPOC students and make them feel as if they don’t belong at the institution to which they pay tuition. Dozens of incidents have made national news in recent years, from Yale campus police attempting to remove a Black student from a common study room, to Temple University police holding a Black student at gunpoint while they searched his family’s BMW. Several campus officers, such as police at San Jose State, have murder on their hands. Countless more violations don’t break into publications, or go unreported altogether.
While it’s true that GWPD functions slightly differently from municipal police forces and other campus police, especially because its officers do not carry firearms, the department perpetuates the same hierarchy of power and white supremacy. Black students at GW have already expressed deep frustration and collective trauma at the hands of GWPD, as exemplified publicly by the letter they sent to Chief Tate on June 2nd. Earlier in the year, an officer pushed a protestor down the steps of President Leblanc’s house during a peaceful demonstration. And at the moment, GWPD certainly serves the same general role vis-a-vis students as other campus police, regulating student behavior rather arbitrarily – for example, occasionally busting students for alcohol, or recommending that students leave certain buildings after hours.
We are a well-known institution of higher learning, with thousands of intelligent students, and yet we still have trained police, complete with the trauma and baggage of centuries of oppression, knocking on dorm doors to break up loud parties. Are there truly no alternatives?
Replacing GWPD, however, must be done carefully to avoid a drastic increase in MPD presence on campus, even though GW has no standing contract with the Metropolitan Police Department. I shudder at the thought of MPD, masters of kettling and alleged users of teargas post-moratorium, responding to a student protest. DC’s police department, under Chief Newsham and Mayor Bowser, has an abhorrent human rights and racial justice record. A shocking 87% of non-ticket police targeted Black residents. Just this past summer, MPD officers stumbled upon social media footage of Deon Kay, an 18 year-old Black high school student, with a gun, and shot him within ten seconds of arriving at his location. On campus, we already see armed MPD officers – along with entirely unaccountable Secret Service and Capitol Police – every day, and at the moment, we have next to no mechanisms of control over them. The presence of GWPD certainly does not deter other forces from casting the specter of occupation that campus police were designed to prevent.
The GW Black Student Union has called for important reforms to GWPD; chief among these are regular meetings with student leaders, a significant decrease in officer presence at community events hosted by Black students, and a reduction in MPD dependence for low-level offenses. But I believe we could go even further: reducing the number of officers, funding mental health professionals to respond to relevant emergencies, implementing a civilian/student oversight committee with actual powers, barring GWPD from responding to incidents of drunkenness and noise complaints, and more.
Fully protecting all students from harm and trauma, especially queer and BIPOC students, is no theoretical endeavor. Reforms without the end goal of abolition have been tried over and over, and still we face police brutality on a massive scale. We need to fight for a future beyond police by seriously analyzing the forces that created modern policing, committing to collectively reimagining public safety, and exercising careful judgment about the consequences of each step in the process.