A Call for Community Control of Campus Police
by Karma R. Chávez
On April 14th during UW-Madison Professor Dr. Johanna F. Almiron’s Afro-American Studies Class, Black Visual Culture, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department entered Dr. Almiron’s classroom to remove a young black male student from the class. Upon confrontation, the student agreed to leave his seat and subsequently was detained and arrested outside of the classroom and taken to the Dane County Jail, where supporters later posted his bail. The student has been accused of 11 counts of vandalism for putting graffiti on buildings that directly confronts the racism faced by students like him on campus. He was also charged with one count of disorderly conduct.
Since the arrest, a number of responses have emerged. Dr. Almiron and I co-authored a letter from UW-Madison faculty and staff denouncing UWPD’s actions and demanding that the student be allowed to graduate in May. More than 800 faculty and staff have signed so far, and more than 850 have signed a similar petition for those outside UW with the same demands. The Teaching Assistants’ Association issued a strong statement, and students have organized a protest for April 21st. Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Police Chief Sue Riseling and Dean of Students Lori Berquam have all issued statements apologizing, or at least noting that UWPD did not follow proper procedures.
The trolls have also come out in force. Several have co-opted the “#therealUW” hashtag on Twitter to ask how police make people unsafe, to accuse people of color of falsely charging racism, and to support police. I received a lovely piece of hate mail this morning from email@example.com telling me in part, “You should be ashamed of yourself and you owe an apology to the university police (which of course, you won’t issues [sic] because you’re too ignorant to realize you’ve done anything wrong). You do not belong at this university after your actions.”
A lot can be said about what has happened, and I think several concrete action steps are warranted to address this particular incident as well as the broader campus and community climate. But one thing is for sure, UWPD violated its own policies, and needs to be held accountable by the communities it has impacted. As long as we have police departments, the only way for true accountability to exist is to have community control of campus police.
For the past year, the Young Gifted and Black Coalition and Freedom Inc. have called for black community control of the Madison Police Department. Earlier this year the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited several cities around the US to collect information and stories about police killings, police in schools, state violence targeting the African American community, racism in the criminal punishment system, mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty. Freedom Inc. participated in these hearings, sharing the extreme racial disparities in policing here in Madison. The preliminary findings of this UN working group include the following recommendation (among many others): “Community policing strategies should be developed to give the community control of the police which are there to protect and serve them. It is suggested to have a board that would elect police officers they want playing this important role in their communities”.
Currently, there is no community oversight of UWPD. According to its policies from its website, “All employees of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Police Department work under the authority of the Chief of Police. The Chief of Police is the administrative head of the Police Department. Under normal operations, the Chief of Police reports directly to the Vice Chancellor for Administration [currently the interim person in this position is Michael Lehman] and is responsible for the overall planning, organizing and directing of the Police Department. During times of crisis, the Chief of Police may report directly to the Chancellor for the University or the President of the UW System.” I can’t find any evidence of any community board or group to whom UWPD is accountable. This is unacceptable.
Chancellor Blank should immediately take steps to implement community control of UWPD. The members of the community board should be appointed through a random selection process that could be decided upon by those most impacted by current policing practices. In my view, the board should be comprised of at least 51% students and 51% people of color as these are the groups most negatively impacted by policing. The board should have representation from tenure and tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty and academic staff, as well as university staff including cleaning staff and groundskeepers. The board should also include both graduate and undergraduate students. Members of the board should serve for a designated amount of time before new members are selected. The board should have control over the creation of UWPD policies and procedures, as well as hiring, firing and disciplinary processes. Only with this kind of organizational structure can UWPD truly be accountable to the community it serves.
Such a change will not be easy. I fully recognize the pressures that campus officials are under given budget cuts, attempts to get guns on campus and the ever-present threat of active shooter scenarios. I suspect that even though I find Sue Riseling to be a nice and reasonable person, that she, like her counterpart in MPD, will be adamantly against this proposal. But what currently exists does not work for people of color on campus. Many students and even some faculty and staff don’t feel safe in their classrooms or elsewhere on campus after this most recent incident. And I should add, many didn’t feel safe before. Even the most adamant supporters of current policing practices surely agree that everyone at a university deserves to have a safe environment in which to learn. Now is the time for big ideas that will address structural racism and make our classrooms safer spaces for the most marginalized students, faculty and staff.