People, especially Black people, have long been exhausted by the continuing issues of police brutality and racism that is perpetuated by the current systems implemented. In the past two months, nationwide protests have broken out, even locally in Riverside, alongside demands for not just reforms but the defunding or complete abolishment of the police. UC students have found themselves in a similar conversation with their respective institution and the University of California Police Department (UCPD). In light of recent events, UC student activists are renewing their efforts for increased oversight and possible abolishment of the UCPD.
No UC student should feel unsafe or harassed at their school, especially not by the people who are meant to protect them. While it is unlikely that the UC would be bold enough to abolish UCPD altogether, the UCPD has proven in the past to be working against their students rather than with or for them. Drastic revisions need to be made within the UC’s police force and a good place to start would be the defunding or reforming of the UCPD.
On May 31, UCR’s Black Student Union released a statement directed toward Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox and the UCR administration with demands that UCR explore alternative forms of campus safety and ultimately divest from the UCPD. Similarly, earlier this month, the UC Berkeley Law Students of African Descent (LSAD) sent a letter to the chancellor of UC Berkeley (UCB) demanding that the administration “cut ties with the Berkeley Police Department, to disarm the UCPD and to disband the department and reallocate resources to the development of appropriate alternatives to policing.” The letter also includes several instances of police violence within the UCB community. For example, in March 2019, two Black students were forcefully searched and thrown to the ground while walking home from campus. They were both arrested and brought in for interrogation and throughout the whole arresting process, neither of them was read their rights.
In addition to concerns of racial profiling, the UCPD has received criticism due to their aggressive behavior when it came to handling protests. Most notably was an incident that went viral in 2011 where a UC Davis police officer casually pepper sprayed students who were seated peacefully protesting. The students affected eventually won a settlement and the officer was fired.
It is clear that the people who were put in place to protect UC students are actually just putting them in harm’s way. This continuous pattern of behavior is not going unnoticed in the communities they work for either. In 2013, in attempt to combat an increase of robberies, UCR officers implemented new police actions that only ended up causing more racial profiling of Black students at UCR. Several African American students attended a town hall meeting to express how UCPD’s combative behaviors led to more frequent stops of Black students and them feeling unsafe walking outside at night in fear of being made out a suspect.
Not only has the UC allowed these aggressive behaviors to thrive at their institutions, they have been excessively funding it as well. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the 10 UC campuses collectively spent more than $138 million on policing alone, with UCR in particular spending $9.04 million. UC Berkeley spent more on salaries for police than for instructors of education, psychology or social welfare. The UC is a system of universities, not a military base. It doesn’t make sense to invest more money into policing over professors and its students, especially when there are more important organizations and departments on campus that are severely underfunded.
UCR often boasts about the diversity of its community but in the past has done little to support ethnic and gender programs on campus. In June 2018, students gathered around the Bell Tower to protest the gap between UCR officials’ salaries and the amount of money spent for students and Costo Hall. To this day, funding for Costo Hall, which includes funding for African Student Programs (ASP), comes from the Highlander Empowerment Student Services Referendum which relies on students’ fees rather than actual funding from UCR.
To UCR students, it is a huge slap in a face to see so much funding be put toward a police department who make African Americans and other students of color feel in danger with their history of racial profiling. To make matters worse, the school is still going to use them as a token for diversity, while overlooking the fact that they choose to support the entity that works against them.
The UC system needs to truly listen to the concerns of their students and actively push for reform and any, if all, defunding of the UCPD. On May 31, UC President Janet Napolitano and Board of Regents Chair John Perez released a statement pledging to “take immediate action to re-examine our own practices and ensure we continue to implement the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Universitywide Policing.” Yet, this statement isn’t a guaranteed promise that any changes will be made. Another UC systemwide task force on policing recommended in early 2019 that each campus set up an independent advisory board to oversee police, but a year and a half later, the actual implementation of this recommendation varied by campus.
It is expected that the UC would not be keen about defunding the UCPD completely, but a start would be to demilitarize all university police departments. A university campus is not a place for armed forces and the inclusion of weapons in any situation could lead to escalation rather than resolution. According to UCR’s 2016 crime statistics, a majority of offenses were robbery or vandalism, both which can be handled without the use of firearms. If a situation is dire enough to warrant the use of firearms, then the city of Riverside police department should be called in to handle it instead. This doesn’t change the fact that whether it be the UCPD or city of Riverside police department, Black students still won’t feel safe with either presence on campus. Beyond firearms, the relationships UCPD and local police departments have with UC students remains rocky after years of misconduct.
Taking away the UCPD’s weapon budget would free up money that could be redirected to students in need. In 2015 and 2016, UCLA’s police department spent $169,925 on material supplies which includes: fuels and lubricants, flares, safety vests, ammunition, uniforms for dispatch and office supplies. While this number most likely varies from campus to campus, it is still a significant amount of money all UC campuses could get back and UCR specifically could put it toward its underfunded programs.
There needs to be more emphasis on de-escalation and conflict resolution among officers but even then it is not certain that implementing this type of training will truly be effective. Currently, UCPD officers receive the same legislative mandated training that all other California police officers go through, but a couple of weeks of implicit training has already proven to not be enough, especially since there are no follow ups about the effectiveness of trainings. The UCPD must do better in adopting non-lethal methods of approach especially since they are working for a population of predominantly young students. There is no room for errors similar to the ones their city police departments peers are making nationwide.
If UCPD officers cannot adapt to conflict resolution tactics, then it would be best for the UC to reduce what the UCPD has jurisdiction over. Oftentimes, police officers will get calls to do welfare checks or to scope out suspicious characters. In these cases, the situation can easily be escalated by police officers, as seen with the murder of Rayshard Brooks. The Atlanta police officers were responding to a complaint of a Black man asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru and the interaction ended with the murder of an innocent man.
Instead of spreading the UCPD too thin, the implementation of a community-led organization who has individuals specialized in mental health and are trained in first aid could be an effective alternative to calling the UCPD for every single thing. In non-violent situations like welfare checks, sending in unarmed individuals experienced with mental health would prevent deaths like Rayshard Brooks from ever happening.
While it is still unknown if the pledges of Napolitano and other UC officials will bring about any changes, there is one thing that is certain: that Black UC students deserve to feel safe on their campus. They should not feel afraid to be on campus because they might be profiled or harassed for doing nothing but walking. If the UC truly cared about their students as they claim to do, they would take more active steps toward changing the role of UCPD on UC campuses and hold them accountable for police brutality.