Campus police look on as a crowd forms in the Quad over a religious demonstration at Cal State University, Fullerton on Oct. 22, 2018. Photo by Riley Mcdougall, The Daily Titan

The chair of the University of California board of regents said Wednesday he’s open to considering dramatic cuts in the number of armed, sworn police officers across the university system.  

The comments by Regent John Pérez came during a panel on the future of campus policing co-hosted by CalMatters and KQED, in which the UC Student Association proposed decreasing armed officers on UC campuses by 40%.

“There’s room to have discussion about a significant reduction in policing on campuses,” Pérez said, adding, “I don’t think the 40% number is wildly out of the range of possibility.”

College students, professors and administrators from across California convened at the virtual event to discuss what policing could look like at their respective campuses, in the face of systemic violence against people of color at the hands of police across the country. 

Racial injustice was at the forefront of discussion, held just one day after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. Floyd’s death last summer intensified conversations across the country — including on California’s college campuses — about the role of police.

Here are some key takeaways: 

Division remains between administrators and student governments over how campus police need to change 

San Francisco State University student Ja’Corey Bowens and UC Riverside student Naomi Waters both spoke in favor of defunding campus police departments and replacing them with unarmed professionals trained in addressing mental health and other needs of the campus community. 

“With abolition, we have the opportunity to redefine what a safe campus looks like in the future, with investing into housing, providing basic needs, investing into (counseling) on campus, investing into the student health center, providing resources for domestic violence,” said Bowens, who co-authored a resolution by SF State’s student government calling for the abolition of campus police. 

Waters, the chair of the UC Student Association’s racial justice campaign, outlined the organization’s proposals to freeze hiring of new officers, give independent oversight boards authority over police department budgets and create a pilot program in restorative justice, an approach that emphasizes repairing harm rather than punishment.

The UC spent $138 million on policing in the 2018-2019 year. Waters said that budget should instead be spent addressing mental health and funding housing for homeless and at-risk students. 

While Pérez agreed that the association’s proposals are a framework for progress, he and UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow argued during the panel that it is necessary for UCs to retain their police departments. Officers hired to work at a UC campus are better equipped to work with students, they said, compared to police officers from outside the campus coming in to answer calls. 

“I’m going to say something unpopular: One of the reasons we need police on campuses is because campuses aren’t free from violent crime, and they’re not free from other expressions of crime that are appropriately responded to by police,” Pérez said.

While UCSA has come out in favor of abolition, opinions vary among students about the need for changes in policing — UC Davis’s student government, for example, in 2019 voted down a resolution calling for disarming campus police after some members said they were worried about safety. 

UC Davis is working towards a “tiered approach” to policing, Farrow said, where in some instances armed officers can be replaced with student security guards or police who are not in full uniform and don’t have a weapon displayed. 

“What all the campuses are trying to do is figure out a way to deploy and secure the campus in a way that’s least intrusive to our students, but also recognizing at the same time the triggering effect (of police) and lived experiences that our students have,” he said.

At least one California community college district has already abolished police 

The Peralta Community College District in the Bay Area recently moved to an unarmed security model, severing its contract with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, explained Laney College psychology instructor Kimberly King, who helped design the plan. 

Few violent crimes occur at Laney’s campus, King said, adding that the crimes that most frequently occur are crimes of poverty, homelessness, and “crimes of society that have abandoned the people.” When violent crimes do take place, outside police forces are called in, she said. 

The shift is one step toward what King described as a holistic, community-based system of safety. Students, faculty and the local community advocated for non-police patrol and putting measures like restorative justice, mental health, and first aid training at the forefront. King acknowledged that the new system is more costly, but said it was worth it.

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“Policing uses force and the threat of violence, we don’t need that on campus. We do need safety, but there’s other ways to implement safety,” she said. 

Expectations are changing for campus police officers

Though panelists disagreed about whether reform or abolition is the right way to address campus policing, there was consensus that greater transparency and oversight for college police departments is necessary. 

Farrow said one piece of legislation that will provide more accountability is the Racial and Identity Profiling Act, often known as RIPA — a state law which mandates police departments publish more information about the stops that officers make, including the racial demographics of those stopped. The law doesn’t go into effect for the CSU or UC until 2023, but Farrow said that UC Davis police have already begun to publish some of that data on their website. 

Pérez said that the UC should be “at the leading edge” of changing policy and culture around policing, and holding accountable officers who make discriminatory stops and racially profile people, something he said he’s experienced throughout his life. 

“The idea is you have to change the idea about what the expectation of law enforcement officers are. Stop rewarding people for stops, arrests, infractions. Start rewarding people for positive interactions and for disengagement, and actually hold people accountable where it counts against you when you’re making these kinds of random interactions that have no basis in response to an actual threat,” Pérez said. 

He also said UC should set a systemwide standard for how campus police respond to protests, calling the show of force by police in riot gear during last year’s graduate student protests at UC Santa Cruz “appalling.” At least one student has sued the university for injuries she said were inflicted by police during those demonstrations.

But while panelists all spoke in favor of greater accountability measures, some said they fell short of the full-scale reimagining of campus safety that would make colleges feel safe and welcoming for students of color.

“The police are still there and Black students are not feeling safe,” said Bowens. Colleges, he said, “cannot reform a system that’s inherently anti-Black and based in white supremacy.” 

Katherine Swartz is a fellow in the CalMatters College Journalism Network, working with Open Campus on a team focused on in-depth and investigative work in California.