Justice  /  Comment

The Dark Side of Campus Efforts to Stop Covid-19

Expanding campus police forces’ power threatens to increase surveillance.

... presents an opportunity to bring campus police and security together with health authorities in new ways.” Serving as “the extended eyes, ears, [and] messengers” of social distancing enforcement comes with a range of new powers for these officers, particularly that of campus surveillance.

... presents an opportunity to bring campus police and security together with health authorities in new ways.” Serving as “the extended eyes, ears, [and] messengers” of social distancing enforcement comes with a range of new powers for these officers, particularly that of campus surveillance.

While it is critical to slow the spread of the virus, it is dangerous to attempt to do so by increasing police powers over campus life. In fact, the history of campus police surveillance shows once these departments receive new powers and equipment, they are loath to give them up. Communities of color on- and off-campus, and Black local residents and students especially, are most likely to experience the consequences.

Universities first started forming small campus police departments 125 years ago. They most closely resembled night watchmen until the postwar boom in student enrollment, when these police forces began to expand their ranks. Campus forces continued to quickly professionalize their departments during the social upheaval of the 1960s, carrying arms, wearing badges, patrolling in squad cars and receiving federal and state grants to supplement their university funding. Administrators charged campus police with suppressing unrest, protecting university property and profiling visitors to campus, often forcing Black, Brown, working class and homeless people off campus grounds.

During the student protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, campus police attempted to quash the political actions of students, particularly Black and Brown organizers, by developing their own surveillance units, sometimes at the behest of university administrators, and sometimes of their own volition. They recorded videos and audio of protests, photographed students for identification purposes and surreptitiously recorded and wiretapped phone calls and conversations using undercover officers posing as students.

They assembled their findings in intelligence files on individual students and organizations. Many departments maintained close working relationships with local and federal agencies carrying out parallel surveillance operations. They shared and traded information with the FBI and other intelligence-gathering agencies, drawing on many campus police officers’ contacts and training from previous careers in municipal and state law enforcement, federal departments, prisons and the military.

As student protests waned in the 1970s, however, these surveillance technologies and external partnerships remained. In fact, during the next two decades, campus police played an important, albeit often overlooked, role in the War on Crime. In the context of a nationwide crime wave panic driven in part by pressure from students and their parents, university administrators and campus departments responded to high profile cases of violence in the 1980s and 1990s by equipping themselves with gear from an emerging cottage industry of campus securitization.

To this end, they oversaw the installation of extensive CCTV, streetlights, emergency call boxes, alarm and ID systems and other measures of dubious effectiveness and at great expense. Security features like Blue Light call boxes have become commonplace fixtures of the college campus landscape.

Many of these measures were marketed as a way to prevent stranger rape, even as campus departments regularly disregarded or even suppressed actual reports of sexual violence. Moreover, countless Black students were (and continue to be) caught in the crossfire of technologies and protocols designed ...