As campus-based and grassroots movements against anti-Black and racist state violence continue to proliferate around the globe, university police and “campus safety” infrastructures and policies are rapidly losing their institutional legitimacy. Multiple national organizations, including Scholars for Social Justice and the American Studies Association, have endorsed the call for college and university campuses to join the national “Cops Off Campus” May 3, 2021, “Day of Refusal” and to organize with each other to contribute to solidarity activities throughout “Abolition May.” In addition to more than 30 University of California and California State University campuses, colleges and universities across the continent are participating in this month-long mobilization, including the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, the City College of San Francisco, the University of Texas, Yale University, San Bernardino Valley College, the University of Virginia, the City University of New York, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania.
The May 3 Day of Refusal is a one-day commitment to withdraw all labor and participation from college and university activities, including (virtual) classes, events/webinars, email correspondence and administrative meetings. This is the inaugural mobilization of Abolition May, which Cops Off Campus conceives as an open invitation to organize and participate in a wide variety of community-building actions, including abolitionist teach-ins, mutual aid drives for vulnerable people on and near campuses, autonomously organized town halls, banner postings, street theater, walking tours focusing on sites of past police and university violence, and the creation of memorials commemorating people killed by police.
As this movement unfolds, the University of California (UC) administration is actively engaged in a repressive and reactionary response to the crises shaping the current historical moment. A series of proposed revisions to the systemwide UC police policy will expand the capacity for statewide police militarization (via “Systemwide Response Teams”), enhance UC Police Department (UCPD) surveillance technologies (by distributing body-worn cameras), and further weaponize the UCPD’s “Use of Force” policies. The implications of this administrative proposal are deeply concerning, not only because UC is among the largest public university systems in the world, but also because it has historically served as an experimental ground for the development of modern police technologies and protocols.
Students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities are identifying and confronting the UC administration’s approach to police reform through vigorous abolitionist organizing. Central to this work is the embrace of rigorous shared analysis, education and planning that fundamentally challenge the institutional assumptions underlying police-dependent notions of campus safety. Alongside UC Student Association leader (and UC Riverside student) Naomi Waters, San Francisco State University student leader Ja’Corey Bowens and Laney College professor Kimberly King, I participated in the presentation of a clear abolitionist response to the ongoing problem of university and college police presence during the April 21 CalMatters/KQED (Los Angeles) event, “The Future of Campus Policing.”
During this discussion, the four of us collectively reframed notions of “safety” and “security” by centering dynamic, decriminalizing, community-accountable infrastructures that deprovincialize college and university campuses, emphasizing how institutions like UC have historically had gentrifying, disastrously criminalizing effects on surrounding people and geographies. The resulting debate with the UC Regents Chair John Perez and UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow exemplified the recent and remarkable shift in the content and parameters of critical public discussions of police power. Such debates are increasingly engaging with abolitionist frameworks and thus no longer accept the severe limitations of reformist scripts. While the impact of such invigorated debates on the UC administration’s policing policy is still to be determined, it seems clear that the campus police presence is steadily losing credibility. The administrative leadership can no longer presume consent to its definition of “campus safety.”
Abolitionist security and safety measures directly confront and address the insecurities — housing, food, health, economic, and otherwise — that are not only created and reproduced by colleges and universities, but are also reinforced by their policed relation to surrounding (working-class and poor, unhoused, Black, Indigenous, Brown, undocumented, criminalized) communities.
In contrast to this dynamic abolitionist approach, the UC administration proposes to reform, expand and further militarize its police force in the name of safety, peace and security. Three aspects of its plan are worth special attention, especially as they are likely to influence other institutions’ approaches to police reform: the creation of Systemwide Response Teams, deployment of body-worn cameras, and preemptive sanction of police violence and intimidation through enhanced use-of-force policies.
On “Systemwide Response Teams (SRTs)”
The “MISSION STATEMENT” of SRTs states,
1602. The mission of the University of California SRT is to maintain a trained team of sworn personnel with the skills and equipment readily available to assist local campuses to:
(a) Facilitate and protect the Constitutional Rights of all persons;
(b) Keep the peace and protect life and property;
(c) Protect lawful activity while identifying and isolating unlawful behavior;
(d) Provide dignitary protection; and
(e) Provide training and other assistance when requested and appropriate.
It is a shock to the conscience and ethical sensibility of many UC students, educators and workers that, after a year of worldwide uprisings against police violence, the UC administration is proposing the creation of a new, specialized police force that significantly expands the power, militarization and personnel of the existing UCPD.
The SRT apparatus facilitates multicampus police mobilizations for the purpose of controlling and suppressing mass demonstrations on and near UC campuses. By way of example, the provisions cited above would allow (if not obligate) the UCPD to convene SRTs for the purposes of deterring, repressing, and/or neutralizing public protests of UC Regents’ meetings, while utilizing SRTs as a privileged form of paramilitary protection for visiting “dignitaries” (e.g. ambassadors and prominent state officials) representing governments that may be widely criticized for historical and ongoing atrocities, including apartheid, colonial occupation and genocidal violence. (This provision seems especially well-suited for targeting mobilizations of solidarity with Palestinian liberation that challenge the policies and asymmetrical violence of the Israeli state.)
The paramilitary nature of the SRTs is crystallized in the proposed policy’s provision for the assignment of special personnel “to meet operational needs,” including “grenadiers.” According to the U.S. Army’s “Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad” Field Manual, a grenadier is a soldier equipped with a grenade launcher for the purpose of “providing limited high-angle fire over ‘dead space.’” According to the University of Wisconsin police, the grenadier is an officer who has been trained in the use of “Chemical Agents/Munitions and their delivery systems.” Notably, the UC policy does not provide a clear definition of this personnel category, and the grenadier’s capacity to engage in tactics of campus-based counterinsurgency is left to speculation.
On “Body Worn Audio/Video Systems (BWVs)”
The proposed revision to UC police policy allows UCPD officers extraordinarily wide latitude to exercise “discretionary activation” when it comes to use of their body-worn video cameras (BWVs). They are given enough room for subjective interpretation of situations that they can essentially activate or deactivate their cameras anytime they wish, with rather loose requirements for post facto justification. Further, there is no clear consequence for failing to activate (or unjustifiably deactivating) BWVs, and there are also no apparent consequences for losing or “accidentally” erasing the BWV footage itself.
By way of example, “1520. Modification, Alteration, or Deletion” states, “no employee shall modify, alter, or delete video or audio once recorded by the [body-worn] camera, except as authorized by Department policy,” yet there is no accompanying clarification of penalties if the policy is violated. Such toothless and deceiving policies effectively create superficial, bureaucratic approaches to “police accountability” that serve to expand the technology and judicial impunity of policing.
It is well established that even when used according to prescribed guidelines, police-worn body cameras have never definitively reduced the frequency or intensity of police violence. Recorded footage is generally not accessible to the public, and police administrators (including officers themselves) are afforded significant privileges in handling the preservation and distribution of such recordings. (Keep in mind that the world learned of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police through the video recording of a courageous 17-year-old minor, while former Officer Derek Chauvin’s body cam footage was not released until well into his criminal trial 10 months later.) Further, increased distribution of body-worn cameras contributes to the enhancement of criminalizing surveillance technologies, exacerbates privacy concerns, and often significantly increases police personnel and budgets under the guise of reform.
On the “Use of Force Policy”
The proposed revision to the UCPD’s Use of Force policy weaponizes fantastically broad definitions of “active resistance” and “assaultive resistance” to police authority. As defined in the proposed policy, these terms allow for extraordinarily generous interpretations of “resistance” that retroactively justify police force, potentially including deadly or maiming police violence; for example, the category of “active resistance” includes any observation of a policed subject’s “bracing, tensed muscles,” while the definition of “extreme agitation” — “agitation so severe that the person can be dangerous to themselves or others” — is precisely the rationale used to justify numerous anti-Black police killings, including Ma’Khia Bryant, Laquan McDonald, and many others.
Similarly, the definition of “non-compliance” allows police the widest possible latitude to make subjective judgments of “physical gestures, stances, and observable mannerisms.” Such inferences are entirely saturated by the ideological, symbolic and historical forces of anti-Blackness, racism, sexism, gender normativity, ableism and ageism.
The Use of Force policy is thus a potentially devastating weapon of repression, intimidation and criminalization because the scope of its implementation remains almost entirely determined by the perceptions of police officers themselves. Section 803 states: “reasonableness of force will be judged from the perspective of an objectively reasonable officer in the same situation, based on the circumstances perceived by the officer at the time.” (Emphasis added.)
It is necessary to raise fundamental questions over the institutional assumptions that enable and allegedly necessitate such policies, which are usually framed by administrators as existing for the protection of those who are being policed. Use of force protocols neither prevent nor curb anti-Black, racist, gendered and ableist police violence. To the contrary, these policies establish the bureaucratic and legal premises for ensuring that police threat, harm and fatality remain central to “campus safety” infrastructures.
Abolishing Normalized Institutional Violence
While there are other aspects of the University of California’s proposed policy that call for critical examination, these few examples reflect the need to collectively challenge the normalized conditions of institutional violence that crystallize in the enduring presence of the UC police force. The UCPD’s enormous infrastructure of privilege and power (budgetary, juridical, and otherwise) has toxified one of the world’s largest public universities for well over half a century. At a moment in which people worldwide are questioning the institution of policing, it is both possible and necessary to challenge the very existence of police on college and university campuses.