Perhaps like many of you, I was appalled but sadly not shocked by the senseless murder of Samuel DuBose by University of Cincinnati “police officer” Ray Tensing. The only thing that surprised me is 1) what violent people are willing to do even when they know the cameras are rolling, and 2) that Tensing was indicted yesterday on murder and manslaughter chargers. Also 3) why the f^(k are campus “police” issued service revolvers? This is clearly a risk to public safety on and near our campuses.
Higher education needs to look to itself to address the militarization of campus “police forces.” It’s not just the state troopers and municipal police, but the so-called campus “police” who patrol our workplaces and our students’ educational and recreational spaces. DuBose’s death has moved me to share my encounters with campus “police” over the past twenty years of my life as a faculty member. Yes, me! Goody-two-shoes white faculty lady!
Isn’t it interesting that I have nothing to report about my encounters as a student and graduate student with campus “police,” and that all of my encounters with “police” at different institutions have been as a fellow employee at universities? Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw. Maybe it suggests that I was a supreme nerd-goody two-shoes as a student and then became a public safety menace as a faculty member. (That’s funny, though, because 100% of my actual law-breaking was done as an undergraduate underage drinker.)
Around the time I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the people on the campus who were once called just “security” began to insist on several different campuses that they now be called “campus police.” Never mind that the spaces they patrolled were dedicated to work, study, and student fun–all university students and employees were now “policed” rather than “secured” on their campuses.
My first encounter with campus “police” was in the winter of 1996, when I was a Visiting Lecturer at the Catholic University of America. I was working in my office on a late Sunday afternoon or early evening–it wasn’t late at night, but the winter sun had already set. I probably had a radio on in the background, which precipitated my door being opened suddenly and violently by an agitated campus “police” officer. No knock, no announcement that he was about to burst in–he just assumed that anyone in my office must be there for nefarious purposes. I assured him that I was in my own office and possessed a key to the door. I thought it was weird that he was so agitated, because my office was in the basement of a student dorm, so therefore not a place on campus where it would be strange to see lights and hear music outside of work hours.
My second encounter with campus “police” was in the late 1990s when I was teaching at the University of Dayton. Arriving at campus early one morning, I was confused by the maze of parking lots where my parking permit now allowed me to park. I drove the wrong way for 15 feet, into an exit-only lane for one parking lot–that was wrong, but there were no other cars moving in the lot at the time, so there was no danger to anyone because I missed the “exit only” sign. I was immediately pulled over (lights flashing and siren blaring!) by a campus “police” officer. When I (naively) moved to get out of my car to have a conversation with the “police” officer, I was screamed at “Get back in the car! Get back in the car!” by the overwrought cop. His anger and apparent lack of judgment and personal control scared me, so I got back in the car. Imagine what might have happened if I were in my teens, and/or African American, and/or male, and/or not wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase?
When I got to my office, I told a trusted senior colleague what had happened. This man was a Marianist priest, a distinguished scholar, and a former high-level administrator at the university. His comment was something like, “Yeah, those campus ‘police’ are out of control. They’re outrageously aggressive with people who pose no threat, and they don’t confront the people who are dangerous to themselves and others.” UD at the time was famous for students who 1) regularly lighted couches on fire in the streets of their university-owned houses, and 2) would have a student die as a result of a night of drinking and a fire started by his housemates when they decided to have a burning paper-towel fight.
Ignore the public underage drinking and mayhem on university property. It was those faculty and staff members arriving at 7:30 in the morning they really needed to keep an eye on.
That put an end to my personal encounters with campus “police.” But twelve years ago, I had an undergraduate student named Mark who told me that he was arrested and illegally detained on the Baa Ram U. campus for (get this) drunk walking. Mark was 21, and had sensibly and prudently decided not to drive but rather to walk uptown with some friends to drink at a bar. Mark decided to go home a little earlier than his friends, so he was walking alone across campus to his off-campus apartment when he was stopped by campus “police” who asked if he had been drinking. He said “yes,” because it was obvious, and he was a little intoxicated. But he was 21! He was walking home! No matter: the campus “police” insisted that he was a danger to himself and forcibly detained him. They told him they stopped him because he was wearing flip-flops on a cold spring night.
Mark always wore flip-flops, summer, fall, winter, and spring. Even when it was snowy or slushy, he wore flip-flops! This became something of a trend among the young men at Baa Ram U. in the mid-2000s, but Mark was the first student I remember doing this. (Flip-flops are legal even in winter in Colorado so far as I can tell, although a poor choice as functional footware. I think the discomfort was part of their charm–a statement about one’s machismo through indifference to cold.) Campus “police” detained Mark and then drove him to a “drunk tank” facility 30 miles away and left him there for the night because he was wearing flip-flops and because he argued with them about being stopped for drunk walking.
None of these encounters were called for. In each case, campus “police” officers manufactured a problem and responded with inappropriate aggression. (In Mark’s case, I’m sure it was illegal imprisonment as well.) Although all of these stories happened years ago, I am newly outraged by each of them because of the senseless murder of Samuel DuBose. I feel like I’ve met Ray Tensing on three different campuses. I bet you’ve met him too, in one guise or another, on the campuses where you’ve studied and worked. Tell your stories.