Recent nationwide protests have re-ignited scrutiny of how the University of California polices its students.
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Ahmad Mahmuod was headed home from the library late one night during his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley when he sensed someone following him.
The person’s shadow came closer, and then a voice called out, “Young man.”
Mahmuod recounts that he turned to see an officer with the campus police, who asked to see his identification. Hands shaking, Mahmuod told the officer he was going to reach into his pocket, then slowly retrieved his student ID card. Even after seeing the ID, however, the officer continued to ask questions, Mahmuod says. What was Mahmuod studying? Could he name the mascot of the Cal football team?
Eventually, the officer was satisfied, but Mahmuod recalls returning to his dorm with his heart racing, unable to sleep that night. While UC Berkeley police say they have no record of the stop, Mahmuod says he felt sure he had been stopped because he was Black, and it was the first of several times that he considered leaving Berkeley.
“It’s hard to be a student and focus on my classes when I know that I can be profiled anytime,” Mahmuod said.
Buoyed by the nationwide wave of protests against police brutality and racism, Mahmuod and other University of California student activists are renewing their push for increased oversight of the university’s police force, with some calling for its abolition.
The calls for change have come from the university’s student government as well as Black student organizations. As cities and universities across the country reconsider their police budgets, some advocates for reform say they think university administrators may finally be listening.
“I’m hopeful because I’m starting to see some of the persistent language in those demands adopted by the administration in their statements,” said Rachel Roberson, a graduate student who co-chairs UC Berkeley’s independent advisory board on police accountability. “We are beginning to align ideologically and politically around what Black humanity looks and feels like within UC.”
The university’s 10 campuses collectively spent more than $138 million on policing in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to campus financial reports. UC Berkeley, the campus with the biggest law enforcement budget, spent more on salaries for police than for instructors of education, psychology or social welfare.
UC has employed its own police force since 1947, and it’s not alone: About two-thirds of colleges and universities with more than 2,500 students do so, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report. California State University also operates its own police force; on Friday, its chiefs said that they would bar their officers from using the carotid restraint, a controversial chokehold that cuts off blood flow to the brain.
“Campus police are specially trained and prepared to deal with critical incidents, some of which have dynamics specific to a campus community, such as in the case of active shooter scenarios,” said Mike Lane, chief of police at UC Riverside, where the Black Student Union recently called for defunding the department. “Also, our officers have familiarity with student resources such as counseling and mental health services.”
But critics of the University of California Police Department have long raised concerns about racial profiling and aggressive policing of protests. After a photo of a UC Davis police officer casually pepper-spraying seated demonstrators went viral during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, the students won a $1 million settlement and the officer was fired. Earlier this spring, UC Santa Cruz police responding to a graduate student strike over pay increases donned riot gear and arrested 17 people. Officers borrowed military surveillance equipment from the National Guard to monitor the strike, Vice later reported.
When three UCPD officers wrestled UC Berkeley employee David Cole to the ground during a union rally in 2018, the department said Cole had thrown a sign at a passing car. But other workers said they thought Cole was targeted because he was Black, and the charges against him were eventually dropped.
Only 34% of Black UC Berkeley undergraduates, and 35% of transgender undergraduates, surveyed in 2019 said they trusted campus police to look out for their best interests. That’s compared with 73% of undergraduates overall.
“I personally think this is the number one issue on campus around campus climate,” Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, Oscar Dubón, said at a legislative hearing last fall on the experience of students of color at California’s universities.
The visible presence of armed officers on campus creates stress for students who come from communities where police are viewed as more threatening than helpful, Roberson said.
“With every glare, with every intimidating gesture, with every reminder of their weapons or their cars outside of our buildings, it is a communication to underrepresented students of color that our trauma isn’t as important as the property and the security of the campus,” she said.
UC Berkeley will create a mental health crisis unit made up of trained counselors who can respond to students experiencing psychological emergencies before the police are called, said Chancellor Carol Christ in a message to the campus community Thursday. UC Berkeley’s independent advisory board on police accountability has been advocating for such a unit. The university will also ban carotid restraints, relocate the police department from its current headquarters near the campus’s main gate, and review whether other responsibilities — such as controlling access to buildings — can be shifted away from police, she said.
“We acknowledge that, over the years, the scope of law enforcement has grown, and it is time to reassess it,” Christ said.
While any major, systemwide shift in policing practices would likely come before the university’s board of regents, UC campuses have substantial flexibility in how they spend their budgets, including on police.
A UC system-wide task force on policing recommended in early 2019 that each campus set up an independent advisory board to oversee police, survey students annually on their satisfaction with the department, and publish summaries of complaints filed against officers online, among a list of 28 suggestions.
A year and a half later, implementation of the recommendations varies by campus. A CalMatters review of police department websites for the university’s 10 campuses found seven that included information on complaints. UCLA and UC Santa Cruz lack independent police advisory boards — boards on both campuses report to police chiefs — but say they are launching them soon.
In the wake of protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, UC President Janet Napolitano and Board of Regents Chair John Pérez released a joint statement May 31 pledging to “take immediate action to re-examine our own practices and ensure we continue to implement the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Universitywide Policing.” The statement also decried institutionalized racism and “unnecessary race-based killings and violence.” UC declined CalMatters’ requests to interview staff responsible for implementing the recommendations systemwide, but said all campuses would put them in place by the end of the summer.
Some advocates for transparency say the task force recommendations don’t go far enough. For example, the report envisions advisory boards that would include representatives of students, faculty and staff and report to a senior administrator rather than the campus police chief. But it stops short of recommending that members have unfettered access to police department records, saying only that they should be able to review “publicly available” reports, data and surveys.
The distinction can be important: When the non-profit news site Voice of San Diego asked UC for records of incidents in which police officers used force to subdue suspects — deemed public information under a law California passed last year — the university produced only two case files. UC omitted records of a number of alleged assaults by officers that had been documented in the media and internal university reviews, Voice of San Diego reported.
The UC Student Association two weeks ago went beyond calls for transparency, demanding in a statement that the campus police be abolished. Nearly 250 UCLA faculty signed a similar letter to administrators at that campus calling on them to defund UCPD, end a separate contract with the Los Angeles Police Department and replace them with “community-led public safety.”
“The University of California Police Department — which continues to arrest, assault, and detain Black people with little to no accountability — must be disarmed and dismantled,” UC Student Association President Varsha Sarveshwar wrote.
In an interview, Sarveshwar said the coronavirus-driven economic crisis — which has cost UC hundreds of millions of dollars — made it more urgent to reassess whether funds allocated to police could better be spent elsewhere.
“We’re potentially entering an environment in which we need to make cuts to student programs and people will start talking about tuition increases,” she said. “It’s hard for UC to say that they don’t have money for something when students remember instances on their campuses when hundreds of armed police officers were patrolling the campus.”
Student opinion on police oversight hasn’t been uniform. Last year, UC Davis’ student government narrowly voted down a resolution calling for disarming campus police after some members expressed concerns about safety.
“Disarming the police is disarming the means to protect students in a worst-case scenario,” then-senior Cody Bynes told the campus newspaper, The Aggie, at the time.
But the events of the past few weeks have changed the contours of debates around policing, with colleges and cities nationwide reconsidering their law enforcement spending. Days after Floyd’s death, the University of Minnesota said it would no longer contract with city police to provide security at events. A majority of the Minneapolis City Council then said they planned to dismantle the city’s police department, while closer to home, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti proposed slashing that city’s police budget by up to $150 million. In the Bay Area, the West Contra Costa School District voted last week to end its contract with local police and redirect the money to services for Black students, while the Oakland Unified School District is expected to take up a resolution to abolish its in-house police department at its next meeting on June 24.
A coalition of Black UC student organizations, the Pan-African Student Association, is scheduled to meet with representatives from Napolitano’s office in July to discuss policing, said its co-chair Ayo Banjo, a UC Santa Cruz student. The group plans to ask UC to repeal the section of its policing policy that allows officers to carry weapons, he said.
Banjo said the coalition also wants to set up a civilian complaint process that would allow people who have concerns about their experiences with campus police to share them without necessarily having to show up at the police department, track that data, and make it available to community members.
“We don’t trust that UCPD is going to do an unbiased investigation (of complaints),” he said.
Such a complaint process could help students like UC Berkeley student Stephanie Gutierrez, who was arrested by campus police last year while protesting a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. She was released without charges, but not before local news media published her name. Worried about doxxing by alt-right groups, and with an injury to her wrist that she says was caused by officers dragging her away from the scene, Gutierrez thought about filing a complaint but didn’t know how.
“I’d never been arrested in my life,” Gutierrez said. “My record is clean. I was telling (the officer) ‘You didn’t read me my rights.’ And the cop laughed at me and he was like, ‘That’s only in the movies.’ ”
UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Gutierrez was arrested by an officer from another campus because she was wearing a mask, which UC regulations prohibit for people not affiliated with the university. She was released once officers learned she was a Berkeley student, Mogulof said. The rule Mogulof cited bars mask-wearing if the wearer is trying to intimidate someone, or violate a law or university policy.
Dubón, the vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, said that rather than take a standard law enforcement framework and try to adapt it to a university environment, campuses should think more creatively about how to ensure safety in a community filled with “basically all valedictorian types.”
He pointed to the example of the University of British Columbia, which like other Canadian universities relies on unarmed security guards, calling in local police only when a crime is committed. New York University, another large, urban university, also uses primarily unarmed guards, with New York City Police Department officers responding in emergencies — though it has recently come under pressure to end even those ties to the NYPD.
UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow said he tries to avoid sending armed officers to the center of campus unless there is a service call, and that he plans to turn over more of the response to minor crimes, such as laptop theft, to the university’s security guards. UC Davis’s police advisory board reviews complaints filed against officers, rendering their own verdicts that Farrow said have sometimes led to policy changes.
“Our community should be part of the structure that helps design what these police departments look like in the future,” he said.
Some activists at UC Davis acknowledge that the police department has made efforts to change its culture since the 2011 pepper-spray incident, but say they nevertheless believe it should be abolished.
“The idea is that police brutality and police violence are a problem with a lack of training, not something that is endemic to the structure and institution of policing itself,” said Blu Buchanan, a doctoral student in sociology. “And that’s a fundamental disconnect between these folks in power and those of us on the ground who have to experience policing at multiple intersections,” they said.
With city police already patrolling the streets surrounding UC Berkeley’s campus, Mahmuod says he doesn’t understand why the university needs its own police force.
“The only time I feel unsafe at Cal,” he said, “is when I’m around police officers.”
Omar Rashad and Janelle Salanga contributed to this story. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.