My experience as a student at Yale University has been invariably flanked by our ubiquitous campus police, the Yale Police Department (YPD). First-year students are given their number by their advisors and instructed to call for safety at one of over 500 “blue phones” located around campus. YPD patrols every corner and street of our campus 24 hours a day, and when my girlfriends and I walk home at night, we always remind each other to stay on paths where we know there will be squad cars parked along the way. The surrounding city of New Haven has violent crime statistics higher than the national average, and all Yale students know which areas of downtown to avoid after dark. I have always found security in YPD’s presence, but this is not a universal sentiment at Yale or other American college campuses, where police presence signals potential danger instead of safety. This begs the question: how can students navigate their need for safety and security with their distrust or fear of campus police?
Campus police became widely established in the 1960s to provide American universities with specialized security that was more integrated within the university community than local police. The latter, who were viewed with hostility as “some kind of invading army” when they were called to student protests, led universities to desire the authority to regulate and curate their own law enforcement to campus-specific needs. However, their impact is not contained within campus: over 80% of campus police departments have jurisdiction beyond university boundaries, prompting protests from local organizations against policing by a private force that they cannot hold accountable.
In parallel with recently increased national protests against police brutality, students have also rallied to protest campus police and call for their defunding or even abolition. Yale University, home to the country’s first university police department established in 1894, is at the epicenter of these movements. In the summer of 2020, hundreds of students and locals marched through the city to protest the previous year’s shooting of an unarmed black couple by the YPD, and called for Yale to defund the YPD and instead fund New Haven community needs such as public education, housing, mental health programs, and youth services. That same summer saw students at University of Chicago, which boasts one of the largest private police forces in America, demanding the disbandment of its campus police. Spurred in part by each other and also by tragedies such as George Floyd’s killing by police officers, a wave of similar protests against campus police rolled across the nation, shaking universities such as Harvard, Northwestern, and Johns Hopkins. To this day, tensions between students and campus police run high, largely because the key issues on the table have not changed; universities remain in support of their police departments, and frustration from students is mounting with each new case of police brutality and subsequent lack of tangible action from their schools.
For many students, the anti-police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter movements have faded from relevance; for others, such as those at Harvard University who protested the campus police response to a swatting incident targeting four black students in the spring of 2023, it is an ongoing effort. These student movements are dissatisfied with their campus police’s authoritative reach, surveillance of communities of color, and lack of transparency and accountability to student and local communities, and have circulated petitions and held protests calling on their universities to defund the campus police and divert those funds to mental health services, unarmed emergency response teams, and support for local public schools and homeless populations. They see their policing as “not justified” based on caseload statistics, which often indicate that the majority of university police department caseloads are property crimes instead of violent ones, and express distrust in the efficacy of reform policies such as de-escalation and diversity training requirements, which have already been implemented by police departments that still continue to raise scrutiny for their violence and discrimination.
No immediate solution can satisfy every party on this issue. Students have the right to feel safe on campus; consequently, universities have the duty to protect their students’ safety, and that duty requires them to keep order on campus, which sometimes means extending their jurisdiction past campus boundaries in cooperation with local police. This is not to support measures such as when the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) helped the Boston Police Department patrol the city’s police brutality protests and helped Cambridge police arrest protestors for trespassing at an Amazon office; these were clearly cases of campus police overstepping the bounds of their authority. However, campus police should not be sanctioned for cooperating with local police in tracking down suspects for crimes that occurred on campus; local police forces handle heavy caseloads and cannot be expected to prioritize flowover university cases.
I, a female student of color, have felt unsafe countless times on campus at night — as have hundreds of thousands of other students in the nation— and I find security in the presence of the Yale Police Department. I understand that my trust in the YPD is not universal, but I do not see a future in dismantling university police departments. Police patrols are powerful preventative measures against crime; caseload statistics showing low violent crime rates cannot be automatically interpreted to dismiss the efficacy of a police presence in keeping order. I have seen a live crime-tracking map on a police monitor that shows shootings clustered outside Yale’s boundaries; I firmly believe in YPD’s role of making campus a safer place for the university community. As such, universities, particularly private ones, cannot be expected to dismantle their police departments; universities should be understood not only as institutions of learning, but corporations that must carefully manage their funds in order to best serve their interests of education and legacy-building.
University police departments need authority, power, and resources; all of those come with responsibilities such as transparency, communication, and accountability. 21CP Solutions, a team of police chiefs, civil rights lawyers, community leaders, and academic researchers, came together to offer a think tank examination of problematic police force-community relations and brainstorm a strategic report; they performed such an assessment at Yale, and their ideas, which align with many goals of police abolition movements, have given me food for thought. While I believe in the efficacy of campus police, they are not the right people to be called for every situation that they are dispatched to. Students having mental health crises, for example, would much better respond to unarmed medical professionals trained to respond to such situations, than a team of uniformed police officers with handcuffs jingling at their waists. As such, universities should reallocate funding to train and maintain a minimally armed response team that can de-escalate nonviolent emergency situations without presenting as a potential danger.
Further funding should be allocated to engage campus police with students and local residents in safe community-building activities such as marathons, potluck dinners, and field days, as well as important meetings where citizens can directly communicate with police officers to ask questions, raise concerns, and receive transparency and cooperation. Records of such meetings should be made readily available to the public, and the police department should have an open door policy to university and local community members at all times. Engagement with local police forces should be in order to directly uphold university safety; campus police must focus their work on campus and serve their respective communities. Concerns about diversity and police brutality must be met with the utmost gravity, and I believe there should be a path for the campus community to put the termination of an employee of the police force on the table. As much as the police are there to protect public safety, the emotional safety of students should also be taken into consideration, and no student should be made to feel unsafe by those who are there to protect them. As such, there must be a way for the community to hold the police accountable for transgressions and offenses.
These ideas are less radical than they are obscure to the public, overshadowed by the ambitious headliner demands of the abolition movement. The call to abolish the police is extreme: it seizes attention and provokes conversations about racial justice in its reference to American slavery, and it has even been criticized for its inflammatory, politically divisive ideology that alienates otherwise sympathetic voters and prevents social reform initiatives from being implemented — as they did in Minneapolis in the fall of 2021. The language of police abolition, while meaningful and effective at drawing the public eye, is ultimately counterproductive to these movements’ true goals. The truth is, so many activists have different definitions of police abolition, all united under an umbrella term; many proponents of police abolition actually designate it as more of a “rhetorical device” or “framework” that will guide more pragmatic solutions of critically reviewing police funds and activity. I see their success as being obstructed by this semantic ambiguity, which continues to drive away voters who refuse to support dismantling law enforcement altogether.
Those in the police abolition movement bring a critical perspective to the table, and their delineated objectives are well-intentioned, pragmatic and convincing. I agree that campuses would substantially benefit from their adoption, and I see a more effective way of bringing about that change: a united presentation of the police reform movement and a transparent structure of its goals and reasoning. We who wish to engender progress must be cognizant of the politics of perception when setting the master agenda.
Hyerim Bianca Nam is a student at Yale University studying biomedical engineering and cellular biology. You can read more of her work at the Yale Daily News.