Students Have Made Themselves Clear. It’s Time We Disarmed Clark’s Police Department

Everett Beals, Scarlet Staff

No more empty promises. No more performances.

President Fithian, the Clark community has made itself clear: our police department must be disarmed.

That demand originated with the labor and leadership of Clark’s Black Student Union, who nearly a year ago now authored a letter to Clark administration demanding “University Police stop carrying automatic and semi-automatic weapons and batons.”

Despite homework, exams, a still-ongoing pandemic, and the stress and trauma of even being on campus for students of color, students have rallied, with the BSU and Undergraduate Student Council (CUSC) leading the charge – even though students of color are already too often saddled with the burden of re-explaining their trauma at our university.  

This powerful movement has manifested in a number of protests and rallies, the most recent of which took place in Red Square, on April 23, organized by the BSU and CUSC. BSU President Ahiela Watson (’21) focused that day in her opening comments on the two goals of the rally: to first again “call for the complete disarmament” of University Police, and second, to “call for the removal of Senior Leadership who have harmed BIPOC communities at Clark,” starting with, Watson said, “the Director of Strategic Initiatives.” An anonymous alumna accused him of threatening to kill her for speaking up at a discussion on race in 2016.

Their two goals summarized a complex history in a single issue: that a culture of fear and intimidation exists at Clark University that makes students of color feel unwelcome.  

The first goal of the protest was the primary focus of the day’s speeches and activism, centered around a criticism that Clark administration “sympathizes with police,” rather than working to create “a safe environment for the BIPOC it advertises as the backbone of the community,” read flyers circulated through the crowd and posted in Jonas Clark Hall.  

At the rally, Watson reminded her audience that in the 313 days since the BSU’s demands were first published, “over 180 Black people have been killed by police in the United States.” Watson, an RA at Clark, keeps a running memorial in her hall to commemorate their memory, she told me later. The list of names, she said, keeps getting longer.

Many students reflected in passionate speeches that they feared for their younger siblings back home, and that they even feared for their own lives while walking our campus.

“It is not our job to hold your hand and show you the way to racial justice,” said Kadijah Kuanda ’22, BSU Social Media Coordinator and CUSC International Student Representative. “What we’re demanding is not outrageous or radical. We are demanding to be treated as humans.”

Watson echoed this notion, driving home the point a number of times throughout the April rally that their work is “neither isolated nor radical.” Indeed, she said the idea of disarming campus police is nothing new. In fact, armed officers are not standard practice at most private universities in the U.S.

Clark is in the minority among our peer institutions. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice, only 38 percent of American private universities employ armed police officers.

Among these institutions, about 70 percent of armed departments on campuses like Clark are empowered to patrol beyond campus boundaries – most often through agreements with local law enforcement – according to the same report. With these powers, campus police departments overreach into their communities, many of which have no way of seeking accountability other than through the university itself.  

At the April rally, Prof. Laurie Ross of Clark’s International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE) Department, and a member of the new Task Force on Campus Safety and Security, said that addressing racism on Clark’s campus requires “the dismantling of systems” so that “new, more inclusive and equitable systems might take their place.”

She said that the Task Force, formed at the request of University President David Fithian in January of 2021, has found that there is “no question that we can greatly reduce the presence of armed officers on campus” at Clark. “Officers do thousands of patrols a year for seemingly no reason,” she said. Truly reinventing the system “will require listening to people who don’t feel safe, rather than telling them what we can’t do” about campus police.

Some recent concerns of the Clark community regarding President Fithian – including some 40 professors, Clark’s BSU and Student Council, and other student groups – stem from comments he made at two faculty and staff meetings in early April.

He began his “opening statement by scolding all members present,” according to faculty who were in attendance and a joint BSU and CUSC statement posted on Instagram on April 13.

Rather than address the demands of the BSU leveled continuously since June 2020, Fithian told faculty at the early April 2021 meeting that everyone must work toward “humanizing our campus police.”

According to the April 13 BSU statement, Fithian said that campus police officers have been “treated unwell on campus where students have been seen avoiding [them], throwing things at their cruisers, flicking them off, [and] muttering things under their breath.” 

At the April 23 rally, two Clark professors read a letter signed by 40 members of the faculty in support of the BSU’s demand to disarm campus police. “We write to apologize for failing to fully be with you,” they read at the rally. “We write to say yes, we hear you.” The authors apologized for the “silence following President Fithian’s statement” about campus police, and that “despite their surprise” at his comments, they “did not speak up” at the time.

“We commit ourselves to creating a secure and safe campus for all,” the faculty letter read, as the collective promised their support for student organizers in “demanding that we disarm University Police.”

Rally organizers criticized Fithian’s messaging, claiming that he evoked an “all lives matter sentiment” in relation to perceived student harassment of police.

“He failed to mention,” they wrote in the April 13 Instagram post, “how the same harassments and bias behavior [are] what BIPOC staff, faculty and students face on a daily [basis] because of their skin color and not their temporary uniform.”

President Fithian told me in an interview on May 5 that he “should’ve done more to contextualize” the statement about campus police being “treated unwell,” and said that he was “perhaps too shorthanded in this one reference… particularly given the timing.” 

Campus Police Do Little to Prevent Crime

At universities nationwide, the efficacy of campus police in preventing major crimes appears negligible. Nearly 93% of all crimes committed against students occur off-campus, a study by the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development found recently. Nearly all college campuses are safer than their surrounding neighborhoods, the report noted, and the presence of campus police and the small number of serious crimes did not equate to causation. It does indicate, though, that campus police generally do little to prevent crime, so much as respond to it more quickly than a local precinct might.

In addition, while some departments invest heavily into firearms and training, the most common crimes tend to be those associated with minor property damage, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a federal agency that conducted a survey of the data last year.

These same resources would be far better spent on students – especially marginalized students of color, as the BSU noted in their number one demand from their June 2020 statement – or on more common crimes which are preventable with secure campuses and community education, like sexual assault and violence. Across the country, 13 percent of “all students experience rape or sexual assault,” according to recent data from the Association of American Universities; nearly 27 percent of all female undergraduates, they said, experience such violence during their time at college.

Armed Campus Police at Private Colleges and Universities are the Exception, not the Rule

In the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), an 11-member league with a comparable spread of institutions in size and scale to that in which Clark’s athletes compete, only two institutions – Amherst College and Tufts University – employ armed officers.

In the past week, the Scarlet found that of the campus safety departments of NEWMAC – in which Clark is a participant – found that four out of ten members (not including the U.S. Coast Guard Academy) do not employ armed officers for campus security. The four institutions which do not arm their security officers are Emerson College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Wheaton College.

Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, just 38 percent of private universities employ armed police officers on campus. Though a frequent flash point throughout history, protests have reignited in the last three years, and many at American universities have led to transformative changes in campus policies.

In November of 2018, students at Wellesley College, a NEWMAC member, circulated a petition asking students to pledge “not to call campus police in non-life-threatening situations.” Diana Paulsen and Erin Kelly of The Wellesley News reported that over 400 signed it. Rachael Labes, co-president of the Wellesley Against Mass Incarceration group, posited that some students “do not fully understand the implications of inviting an armed officer to enter a situation.”

In July of 2020, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, relaunched their campus security as the Campus Safety Department. The Smith community sought to “re-envision the leadership and structure of campus safety,” according to the College’s administration website, and did so after a year-long process of review led by an ad-hoc Campus Safety Advisory Group. Hearings were held with over 425 members of the College’s community through 17 different open meetings. In the new model, campus safety at Smith was made entirely independent of Mount Holyoke (the two colleges previously shared a police force). In addition, Campus Safety officers remained disarmed, and their resources were focused towards patrols on foot and bicycle, as well as on the topics of “de-escalation, anti-racism, and community engagement,” according to the Department’s mission statement.

At the University of Chicago, students demonstrated throughout the summer last year in support of disarmament, “as a step towards… abolition” to be a “direct means of putting resources into the hands of community members,” as Kate Mabus and Noah Tesfaye wrote for the Chicago Maroon. 

At Arizona State University, students protested in support of Black Lives Matter organizers, who criticized the Phoenix Police Department for being one of the deadliest in the nation.

Students at Johns Hopkins University rallied to stage a 35-day sit-in at the university’s administration building, successfully applying enough pressure to defeat a Maryland State bill – lobbied for by university administration – that would have granted JHU the authority to establish an armed police force with jurisdiction in the local neighborhood in Baltimore.

And just this month, students at Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, organized to protest for the complete disarmament of the college’s security officers (who carry only batons), according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Why Not Here? 

Despite years of student demands, Task Force research, faculty pressure, and a clearly mixed national picture of arming for campus police, it appears as though President Fithian has already firmly made his opinion clear on the matter.

In a January 14, 2021 email made in response to renewed demands from the BSU following the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol Building, Fithian stated unequivocally that “any changes at Clark” to security “will not include the disarmament of our campus police.”

He instead stressed the potential of seeking to “change our policing methods to better serve all members of our community,” arguing that disarming CUPD “would render our campus unshielded and unsafe.”

Publicly, it remains unclear whether President Fithian has altered his opinion, given that the Security Task Force has considered disarming CUPD, and that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative web page lists that considering “whether the traditional model of armed university police officers on regular patrol is best for Clark” is a priority for developing a new model of campus security.

I asked President Fithian in a May 5 interview whether he could clarify his position on the matter given the apparent disparity between his messaging and that of the reformative initiatives which Clark has established.

“Over the course of the year, I’ve become more open to other models potentially up to and including disarmament,” Fithian told me.

His recent silence to the student body about his updated position has largely been because of his “decision-making process”, predicated upon whether he can “understand the context for how we’re going to provide elements of public safety, or agree that we’re not going to have them” on Clark’s campus at all.

“Part of the challenge given that we are leanly staffed… is that the police end up being the only parts of our staff here 24 hours a day,” Fithian said. He said that he believes campus police will always have a better connection and understanding of Clark’s campus than the Worcester police might. Fithian said he’s open to using civilian staff to do basic assistance responses – from “dead car batteries” to “lock outs… things like that that they can do” without the training or weaponry of a police officer.

In response, I asked Fithian whether students might feel more comfortable receiving assistance from unarmed campus police instead. “I’ve been expressing an interest and willingness for that the entire year,” he said, though he frequently reiterated his opinion that campus police would not be as effective without their weaponry; instead, he argued, “disarming our police force means basically not having police as we know it… it’s a different job.”

Still, Fithian said, “I absolutely believe that unarmed public safety personnel is an option for us.” 

The President was reluctant to offer a precise timetable regarding when he might act on the question of disarmament. He is relying on the recommendation of the Task Force on Campus Safety and Security, and said that he is “waiting on a set of options for us to consider as a community.” He initially requested that the Task Force reach a decision by early May.

Fithian also insisted that any decision which might eventually be made “come through a representative process” involving all members of the campus community, from staff and faculty, to students, to the Board of Trustees, to whom he is ultimately directly accountable. “I don’t think it’s my job as university president to decide unilaterally how we’re going to provide safety and security… my vision for it, frankly, isn’t relevant.”

The message from the Black Student Union at the April rally is not new. Clark’s BSU has always applied the same pressure, asking the same things of the University since 1969, when students seized the Dana Commons and issued their first list of demands.

“Our question to the Clark University Administrative Board and Board of Trustees is,” they wrote in June of 2020, “why must we keep demanding equity and why are you not responding accordingly?”

Transparency and Accountability

Campus police forces first became popular in the 1960s, following the prevalence of large student protests in which local police and the National Guard were increasingly employed to protect University property, according to a report authored by Libby Nelson for Vox News in 2015. The murder of four students at Kent State University in 1970 by Ohio National Guardsmen was a prominent example which caused national uproar around violence on college campuses. Some colleges were influenced by other massacres: the 1966 University of Texas, Austin tower shooting, which left 15 dead, was especially influential, according to a 2018 Chicago Tribune report by Elyssa Cherney. “College presidents began to lobby state legislatures for the right to create their own police departments,” Nelson wrote for Vox, “where officers would have a constant presence… rather than being seen as ‘some kind of invading army’.” Today, at least 44 states have laws empowering colleges and universities to form their own private security or policing forces, according to Nelson.

In many states today, college police forces are also empowered to work outside the reach of public scrutiny and accountability. Being chartered by the power of the state legislature, and only accountable to the institution itself, campus security frequently claim exemption from reporting their business in the public record, according to a July 2020 ACLU report by Sanjali De Silva. Colleges and universities are only obligated to maintain a daily crime log and provide certain information to the Federal government because of the 1990 Clery Act, according to De Silva, though this is often “the sole measure in place” for police accountability on college campuses. Because of these powers, many campus security forces act as little more than private armies.

Most campus police departments are well-armed and function with the same authority as typical municipal or state officers. Many also have jurisdictions which extend well beyond their campuses; the University of Chicago Police Department, for example, has a jurisdiction of some 65,000 people in the South Side, though only 15,000 of them are students, according to the Boston Globe. In July of 2020, the Globe’s editorial board endorsed considering the disarmament or elimination of campus police, in reaction to reignited protests at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology around campus security that summer. At Harvard, the presence of University Police in riot gear at a peaceful protest in Boston’s Franklin Park following George Floyd’s murder “renewed calls for the abolition of [HUPD],” wrote Ema Schumer for the Harvard Crimson. 

In Massachusetts, university security employees can be appointed as “special state police officers” by the Colonel of the Massachusetts State Police, under authority granted by Part I, Title II, Chapter 22C, Section 63 of the State general laws. According to this statute, service terms are subject to renewal after three years, and officers have the “same power to make arrests as regular police officers for any criminal offense committed in or upon lands or structures owned, used or occupied by such college.” At Clark, according to University Police, all officers are empowered under Section 63.

Taking Action

In the mid-1960s, during the planning phases of the Robert H. Goddard Library, the Development Council for construction stated that “if Clark is to remain an uncommonly small university, its problems and opportunities are likely to require uncommon solutions,” according to an essay authored by Madeline Rozanski ’12, published in “The Life of a Campus,” a series of student essays on architecture and history celebrating Clark’s 125th anniversary.

That spirit of ingenuity and innovation has always driven our university. It’s reflected in our motto now, which charges every student to “challenge convention.” It’s what President Fithian referred to when he wrote that he believes in “Clark’s purpose and promise” in his email reflecting on the rally.

So when did we, as a collective, stop? Is the Clark of our generation one of complacency?

Clearly, as protestors and organizers from the BSU and CUSC have time and again so often single-handedly demonstrated, it doesn’t have to be. They have led our student body, and demanded change and accountability, just as BSU organizers have done for 76 years. They’ve shared how exhausted they are, and how painful it is to live on a campus at which so many BIPOC students do not feel welcome. They’ve spoken truth to power, even if few will listen, as they reflected on the recent weeks, months, and years of especially brutal and public violence against people of color in this country.

Change will require all of us to make a stand, not just those few brave enough to fight for their very lives. Those of us who are comfortable in our situation must work to see the discomfort so many in our community feel at every moment. 

A mandate for disarmament exists within the student body – it’s been a prominent demand for years, as it has been at countless other college campuses across the country.

Faculty have offered their support more than once, even if it came only after students demanded it.

Even President Fithian has expressed his willingness to move toward a newer, safer, more inclusive and more just model of campus safety and security. “These are times that demand we confront these issues maybe more quickly than we have in the past,” Fithian told me, “but this one piece is taking time.”

But we don’t have that kind of time.

Instead, we must recognize that it is possible to reconcile the importance of long-lasting change with the swiftness which this moment has required, even as we have stretched on for a year without a major policy shift.

This university must finally rise to the occasion, and satisfy the long-ignored demands of the Black Student Union. A new vision is possible.

It’s all around us. Students have shouted to be heard, telling anyone who will listen what they know will work to change policing. It’s time we implemented what works for this community – all of Clark, and our neighborhood, too – and acknowledged that what we have isn’t the status quo. 

I went to the rally, and wrote these words, because I love my university and its community. No one would offer their criticism in good faith, or indeed, fashion any demands for change, if it were not out of love. These demands are not hateful; they do not call for the destruction of our university, or its community. These demands were carefully and painfully made out of love, out of a desire to remove hatred from our institutions, and out of a basic and fundamental need to be “treated like humans,” as Kadijah Kuanda said. How can we continue as though there is not a crisis on our campus when so many students feel like they are treated as less than human when they are here?