Thursday, December 08, 2011

The University in Crisis

An email alert graced my inbox not five minutes ago. A police officer at Virginia Tech was shot today. The details are still sketchy, but it appears as though the shooting took place during a traffic stop on campus. While the severity of the shooting is still unknown and the possibility of a second victim was reported, the report indicates no suspect has yet been apprehended. A campus-wide alert is in effect telling students and faculty to stay inside. It is at least tacitly ironic that today is the day that Virginia Tech is defending itself for a fine imposed due to its response (or lack thereof) in 2007, an event that still reverberates today. For those who recall the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech, this report is chilling and telling; our children live in a much different world today. Many claim that the murders of the “student gunman” who killed 32 students and faculty before killing himself at Virginia Tech represent a turning point in how campus police operate, but I contend that the relational alignment between campus police and the communities they serve did not change overnight. Virginia Tech provided a convenient justification for campus police, but in reality the relationship between campus cops and students has not been cordial for some time now.

Look at any local law enforcement agency’s regalia and you will find somewhere the words, “To protect and to serve.” Ostensibly the protection and service is provided to the community, the law-abiding citizens who, through their tax dollars, employ the force that is serving them. While never asked out loud, the implicit, perhaps rhetorical, question arises, “Protection from whom… or what?” Of course this is rhetorical because the answer is obvious, but it is decidedly not rhetorical when one digs through many of the police endeavors to “protect” us. While overzealous police activity is nothing new – indeed, it appears that a peculiar attraction of the job appeals to at least a few who are prone to egotistic exertions of power – there is something darker than just a few cops using too much force to counter criminal activity. Whereas the Rodney King beating was clear example of excess of power institutionalized within the Los Angeles Police Department, Rodney King was a criminal in the purest sense of the word. This does not excuse the excessive use of force by the LAPD, but it does highlight a troubling paradigm shift that something darker is going on here. Who are the criminals today, particularly in the institutional mind of campus police?

If the events last month at the Davis and Berkeley campuses of the University of California are any indication, the relationship is adversarial at best. Now it could be argued that those were isolated incidents and that the police were simply following orders, but it makes little difference whether either or both of those contentions are true. What could not be established in both cases is the presence of criminals or criminal intent. As the viral YouTube videos of the incidents show, the campus police were squared off against students and faculty who were peaceably protesting. Although it is true that they may have been violating some local rules, ordinances or – how dare they – decorum, they were not criminals any more than my receiving a speeding ticket makes me one. The battle cry from the defenders of force, “they were breaking the law, they deserve what they got” can be carried to logical absurdity by calling for the death penalty for parking violations. Using OC spray (euphemistically referred to as “pepper-spray”) and batons on peaceful, non-violent protestors, whether or not they are “breaking the rules,” is an inappropriate use of force. Period.

But this relationship goes much deeper than a couple of publicly displayed instances of (extremely) poor judgment by campus police. And this overall attitude, while certainly apparent in those who find the power of law enforcement intoxicating, exists at the upper levels of campus police administration. Shortly after the YouTube video of the UC Davis police attempts to “enforce” the law against those they are charged with protecting and serving, UCDPD Chief Annette Spicuzza defended her officers stating that they were “surrounded” and just needed to exit. She continued to defend them until she was silenced by “paid administrative leave.” As mentioned earlier, the video tells us much, and part of that “much” is that Spicuzza’s justification is patently false. And until the outrage went global, the upper levels of administration at UC Davis, including Chancellor Linda Katehi, condoned the actions of its law enforcement agency. When adversarial attitude comes from the top, is it any wonder the rank and file view the students as the enemy?

As a point of reference, a recent event on the Louisiana State University campus indicates how campus police leadership can positively influence the actions of its officers. Last summer a communication studies graduate student attempted to make a political statement by burning a US flag on the parade grounds. While ill advised, the action is constitutionally protected. On that day, protection is exactly what the student needed. A predictably angry mob of (mostly) other students mounted a counter-protest and his safety was anything but guaranteed. According to the student, the LSU campus police, while sympathetic to the counter-protesters, still managed to usher him away to safety. However, those officers also felt that he might deserved to be charged with some violation – perhaps the ever-popular law against using poor judgment? Causing a scene? Or maybe even a real law such as unlawful assembly or inciting a riot… regardless, the upper levels of police administration never let that happen. One would expect rational judgment from police administrators and at LSU, apparently, that expectation is realized.

It is perhaps logical that in the wake of Virginia Tech, campus police would reassess their role in campus life. However, the murderous rampage there and other equally random acts are just that, random. There is little that could have been done at Virginia Tech short of a total police state, and even then a determined nut-case would be able to carry out a similar slaughter. There was, after the tumultuous 60s where campus police exhibited a similar adversarial relationship (climaxing with the Ohio National Guard shooting 13 students, killing four at Kent State in 1970), a détente in campus police/student relations. I experienced it as a student at San Diego State University from 1983 -1985. As a initiate and later a member of a large national fraternity, I was involved in my share of pranks – pranks that occasionally brought me into contact with campus police. While I was sternly admonished and even detained for short periods of time, the police at the time knew who they were dealing with – a young, immature and easily influenced college student. In my two years at SDSU, I cannot remember one student ever being arrested and never once did I see any indication of militancy even at very large student gatherings such as home football games.

When I returned to college in earnest, it was 2003. The school was American River College, a community college in Sacramento, California. At the time, the campus police did not carry guns, but they were lobbying for the right to do so, arguing that there was the possibility that they might face a situation for which they would be ill-prepared. The student apprehension was palatable; many asking what recent situation would lead the police to believe that such a scenario was forthcoming. Despite overwhelming student disapproval, the ARC campus police now carry guns and, not surprisingly, have had occasion to use them. While the presence of weapons and riot gear does not foretell an occasion to use them, being prepared for an all out assault does signify the anticipation that such an event could occur. But the question should be, from whom would the aggression originate? A campus police force rarely deals with non-students. Are they expecting the students to mount a counter-offensive?

After transferring to California State University, Sacramento in 2005, my major was journalism. Upon completing my internship, even before graduation, I was a professional journalist – I had a real job at a real newspaper writing real news about real people and got paid real money to do it. It was not a campus newspaper. In my capacity as a journalist I was in contact with city police, county sheriffs and state highway patrol on a regular basis. Our relationship was always cordial even when investigating occasional police transgressions. I also had occasion to write stories that required input from the California State University police. I presented myself, depending on the context of the story, sometimes as a student journalist and others as just a journalist, and found the level of cooperation only slightly better when not identifying as a student journalist. My interviews were always with police “spokespersons” or upper administration and in both my journalistic roles, when asking probing questions I was met with indifference, indignation and more than once, disrespect. I was even underhandedly threatened with arrest on one occasion – for simply asking questions. This was before Virginia Tech and on a relatively quiet campus. As a student journalist, I would expect that the campus police would have viewed our relationship as synergistic rather than adversarial. After all, are we not on the same team? Are we not both members of the same campus community? It is as though the campus police, and more importantly, their leadership, have set themselves apart from and outside the campus to which they serve.

It is difficult to say if the new militarism exhibited by many campus police forces is a reflection of the recent militarism seen throughout the nation in the various “Occupy” protests or not. An argument can be made that the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle was the turning point in the forced quelling of protest activity. The tolerance gained through the sacrifices in the 60s appears the have been forgotten. A college campus is no place to silence descent, as University of California President Mark Yudof said in the wake of the infamous “pepper-spray” incident at UC Davis,  “free speech is part of the DNA of this university.” If campus police use force to quiet civil disobedience the way civil rights protesters were dealt with in Montgomery, Alabama just a half-century ago, what is that telling our students? Although this is a dangerous trend, the public outrage in the aftermath of the twin uses of force in Berkeley and Davis is hopeful. Maybe we haven’t forgotten after all.

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