Justice  /  Argument

Campus Police Are Among the Armed Heavies Cracking Down on Students

While some of the worst behavior has come from local and state police, university police have shown themselves to be just as capable of brutality.

The history of campus police goes back to 1894 and the emergence of a watchman-like system at Yale. These watchmen were granted the legal powers of municipal police and were able to execute arrests and use force as necessary, differentiating them from security guards who generally are unarmed and must rely on local police to make arrests. Modern campus policing as we know it, however, emerged for the most part much later in the 1960s and ’70s, in the wake of the violent police repression of student protests in those decades. During that era, universities invited law enforcement onto campuses, where they famously brought the heavy weight of their force down on students—from the arrests of Free Speech Movement protesters in Berkeley to the NYPD’s violent attack on students at Columbia to the killing of four Kent State students by Ohio National Guard troops

In response, beginning in the 1970s, universities decided to follow a different approach to campus unrest: Rather than deploy local police who worked at the behest of city officials often wanting to “send a message” to protesters, universities developed campus police forces that, at least in theory, would be under the direct control of administrators and thus able to provide a more nuanced, preventive, and less violent approach to campus protests. The hope was that this would minimize disruption to campus life, restore legitimacy to university administrations in the eyes of students, parents, and the general public, and give schools more resources to protect campus infrastructure.

To justify these new and expanded campus police forces, university officials invoked the rhetoric of local control and community service. They argued that that having a police force under the direct authority of college administrators would reduce the level of violence around policing protests because these forces could be more proactive and preventative rather than reactive and retributive. By being a full-time presence on campus, they could channel protest activity into approved methods that didn’t disrupt college operations and didn’t require the involvement of outside police forces.

In practice these new forces tended to be a lot like their municipal peers. Headed up and staffed with officers from surrounding departments, they shared the same training and worldview as police generally. As recent research by Samantha Simon in Before the Badge and Michael Sierra-Arévalo in The Danger Imperative shows, this training and worldview instilled in them a deep culture of fear that bred a high level of defensiveness, suspicion, and unwarranted use of force. They viewed disruption as inherently threatening to the social order and thus worthy of criminalization. As with other police forces racism and sexism also became rampant.