4 Actions Colleges Can Take To Address Police Brutality

A police officer stands watch on a college campus in Chicago on November 30, 2015.

The University of Minnesota announced that it would sever its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department three days after the gruesome murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of the police. In a letter to the community, University President Joan Gabel wrote: “Our campuses and facilities are a part of the communities in which they reside … and we must act when our neighbors are harmed and in pain.” Indeed, to confront the systemic racism of police departments across the country, bold, decisive action is required from all American institutions, including colleges.

The stakes of addressing police violence and accountability are high. Since 2013, only six of more than 4,000 killings by police have led to convictions; and in only 2 percent of those cases was an officer charged with a crime. Racism exacerbates this problem. Nationally, Black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police, despite being less likely to be armed than any other racial group.

While the University of Minnesota is taking action to address the country’s growing consciousness on the issue of police violence, it is far from the only postsecondary institution in an area that has seen especially disparate treatment of Black people at the hands of police. Institutions of higher education across the country must do more to address police brutality in the coming days, weeks, and months. Part of this effort should involve influencing their communities to acknowledge the racism of local institutions and to specifically address police violence. Colleges are the largest employers in seven states, including California, Maryland, and New York—which have experienced significant instances of police violence. Moreover, like the University of Minnesota, many have existing contracts that provide revenue to police departments.

In order to truly effect change, postsecondary institutions should concentrate on two levers of change. One, they should leverage existing contracts to demand significant reforms from police departments, terminating any contracts with departments that refuse to meet new conditions. Second, colleges should model change through how they manage their own campus police departments. There are more than 4,000 campus police departments across the country that employ nearly 32,000 campus police officers combined. Improving college police departments would not only help to create a more inclusive campus community but also positively affect the surrounding community, as campus police officers often have jurisdiction beyond the boundaries of college campuses.

As the nation continues to grapple with how to address the systemic racism embedded in its policing, institutions of higher education must wield their social, political, and economic power to address police brutality and demonstrate values of racial equity to their students and the broader community. This column outlines four initial actions that they can take to do so.

1. Demand reforms by changing contract terms

Colleges should require police departments to meet a series of demands that address police brutality by increasing accountability. First and foremost, they can change the terms of their revenue-generating contracts to ensure that police departments comply with key reforms.

For example, colleges could require local police departments to abide by policies that restrict what kind of force they can use during interactions. These policies could limit excessive force and violence by banning chokeholds, strangleholds, and shooting at moving vehicles, as well as require de-escalation, warning before shooting, and comprehensive reporting—all of which have been shown to decrease police killings. Colleges could also require police departments to publicly disclose data on police officer complaints and ban any local police officers from serving on campus if they have complaints of excessive use of force.

Contracts are worthwhile leverage points because they provide revenue to police departments, which has added weight as these departments are now likely to suffer from budget cuts during the coronavirus-induced economic recession. While the financial weight of a college’s contract with law enforcement varies depending on the services rendered by the institution, it can be consequential. For instance, the severance of the University of Minnesota’s contract consists of eliminating bomb detection services for up to 12 football, homecoming, and other events over the course of nine months, costing the city’s police department $40,000. And with Milwaukee Public Schools following the university’s lead to cancel its contract, the city’s police department will now suffer more than half a million dollars in annual losses.

2. Severely limit ties or sever contracts with police departments that do not agree to new contract terms

Colleges and universities should do all they can to stop working with police departments that refuse to adopt fundamental accountability policies outlined in new contracts, since those who don’t abide by these terms may be putting the lives of Black students and community members at risk. There are two formal arrangements by which postsecondary institutions can achieve this: 1) by severing contracts and 2) by limiting mutual aid agreements with police departments.

Mutual aid agreements are different from contracts in that they are not tied to specific activities the police departments are paid to assist with—such as large sporting events. Rather, they are formal arrangements in which campus and local police lend assistance to one another during emergencies in adjoining jurisdictions, at no cost. It is worth noting, however, that the university-police relationship is not limited to formal agreements, as campus police may engage with local police informally to patrol off-campus student housing or popular college bars.

Canceling a contract would entail changes to specialized services and could encourage other institutions to make similar changes. For example, the University of Minnesota canceled its contract for large on-campus events such as concerts, ceremonies, and sporting events, as well as specialized services such as K-9 explosive detection units. While these services may seem significant, severing a contract with police departments unwilling to take steps to reform enables a college to exert accountability over the institutions in its community and could encourage other institutions to do so as well.

Practically, colleges might need to make some adjustments if refusal to reform forces them to cancel contracts. Institutions that host massive events, such as Big Ten football games, might need to outsource security—who would be required to meet high accountability standards. Importantly, any savings that are generated from this should be directed toward supporting services for Black students.

Colleges could also limit mutual aid agreements to only the most egregious or legally required situations, such as bomb scares. During these emergency situations, which hopefully would very rarely occur, mutual aid agreements would still trigger local, state, and federal law enforcement—for example, a SWAT team might respond to a campus shooting.

Colleges could also stop collaborating with uncooperative police departments in more routine situations. For example, campuses could stop working with local police during protests, as their presence has recently come under scrutiny. Yet they can continue to allow for collaboration during joint patrols and investigations, as the University of Minnesota opted to do.

Local police’s involvement in sexual assault investigations

Additionally, colleges should reexamine the role of local police in investigating sexual assaults on campus. One in 5 women report experiencing some form of sexual assault during college, with women of color and LGBTQ students experiencing sexual assault at higher rates than the general campus population. The extent to which campus and local police work together to conduct criminal investigations varies based on mutual aid agreements, mandates, and the discretion of prosecutors. However, mandatory police referrals or other extensive involvement by police in sexual assault cases may have chilling effects on reporting and lead to unnecessary delays or other harms.

Therefore, colleges should maintain protections for survivors of sexual assault while carefully considering the discretion they have to work with local police when handling such cases. In these situations, the focus should instead be on developing a comprehensive approach to creating a climate and culture of safety that maximizes protections and supports for survivors, promotes healing, and establishes fair, unbiased resolution processes that can inspire confidence among all parties.

3. Ban aggressive police tactics from campus safety departments and commit to transparency

To model the change needed, colleges must also work to improve their own campus safety departments. Almost all four-year institutions with more than 2,500 students have their own campus police departments, whose officers are not that different from traditional law enforcement. These officers undergo the same training and are nearly all armed. Moreover, their powers extend beyond campus boundaries, as upward of 80 percent of sworn campus police officers have arrest and patrol jurisdictions outside the campus.

Like local law enforcement, campus police officers have been involved in shooting and killings and often are not indicted. For example, since 2010, University of Cincinnati officers have been involved in the extrajudicial killings of three Black men—a student, a psychiatric patient, and an off-campus motorist. And in 2014, a San Jose University officer shot a man and was not charged, further demonstrating the need for accountability of campus police officers. In addition to suffering violent tactics at the hands of campus police, Black students often face hate crimes while at school.

Many changes to campus police departments should mirror what colleges demand of the local police officers who work with them, including the adoption of police accountability policies. But colleges can also go further. They can close any loopholes that would shield campus police from accountability as employees of the institution; publish campus police department handbooks and policy documents that explain their procedures and tactics, which are typically not available to the public; and choose to disarm their police officers.

4. Demilitarize campus police departments

Giving police departments federal military equipment—such as armored tanks, explosives, and battering rams—has been shown to increase violent behavior among officers. While colleges do not have the purview or authority to stop local police from obtaining military equipment, they could demilitarize their campus police departments.

Shockingly, at least 124 campus police departments have received military equipment through what is known as the Pentagon’s 1033 program—which enables colleges to receive military equipment while only paying for its delivery or transfer, not the equipment itself. Ohio State University even obtained a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, leading students to demand that the college restrict further militarization. Central Florida, meanwhile, acquired a grenade launcher and repurposed it to fire tear gas. And 66 colleges have M16 rifles, with the most being held by Arizona State University.

The predominant use of the 1033 program is for the transfer of surplus military equipment to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies at little to no cost—which is so concerning that a group of bipartisan senators is introducing legislation to end the program. Importantly, withdrawing from the 1033 program would safeguard student protestors who have been harmed and even died after being tear-gassed by police. More to the point, the evidence is clear that military equipment develops a culture of militarization. Therefore, colleges should demilitarize their own police departments and cease participation in the 1033 program.

Conclusion

Addressing the issue of police violence from a campus perspective is only a starting point in dismantling systemic racism more broadly and improving equity in higher education. More must be done to tackle larger issues of systemic racism in these settings—for example, increasing the representation, support, and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff.

As institutions with significant community ties and political and financial influence, colleges must do more to atone for the racist foundation on which higher education was built. In a literal sense, enslaved Black people built the foundation and walls of many American colleges. Today, these institutions must wrestle with how to right past wrongs, whether through reparations or establishing commissions to identify their ties to slavery.

To help dismantle systemic racism, colleges need to close racial gaps in college access, attainment, completion, and student debt burdens. They must steer clear of oversimplified, one-size-fits-all policies and move toward race-conscious policies that are specific to the needs of racial groups. Only by addressing their own role in perpetuating systemic racism—including police violence—can postsecondary instutions realize their purpose as engines of social and economic mobility.

Viviann Anguiano is an associate director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.