A Contentious Debate Rages

A Contentious Debate Rages

Defunding police is not a new viewpoint of conversation

Safety for some is not “inclusive safety” for all. A contentious debate rages on college campuses today to defund and abolish campus police. Yet college campuses across the nation are increasingly complex small cities, with rising student enrollment, more on-campus housing, an increasing number of high-profile controversial events, and yes, even crime (Wilson, 2015).

Theoretical lines of debate have been drawn in the sand with virtuous slogans and partial truths hurled as facts at their opponents. All this done to bring you to “their” side and earn your support. Neither of those for or against abolishing the police yet provide a public safety solution that balances safety obligations with community concerns and priorities.

Inclusive safety is a vision in which all members of the campus community should feel valued, welcomed and free from harm (UC, 2021). To achieve this vision, campus communities must depend now on the social and political actions by university students, staff, and faculty, administrators and police leaders.

Reimagining Campus Policing
This is not the first time campus communities faced paradigm-changing sociopolitical decisions affecting their safety. College police departments emerged 50 years ago in large part as an outcry for change. On May 4, 1970, National Guard members shot student protesters at Kent State University. After some 70 shots fired, four students lay dead. Nine other students were injured (History.com, 2017).

This tragic incident was a tipping point that sent shock waves across the country. Horrified how local city police and national guardsmen were violently clashing with campus communities during massive civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, campus administrators along with faculty and students demanded policing be reimagined on college campuses (Gelber, 1972).

State legislatures paved the way to allow colleges to create their own campus police that could relate to their unique campus communities and provide a safer environment at the behest of students, faculty, and staff (Sociopolitical Climate, 2009). By 2012, more than 4,000 university police departments across the United States serve and protect their respective campus communities (Reaves, 2015). More than 50 years after their initial creation, it is time once again to reimagine how campus safety can be achieved.

The Efficacy of Campus Policing
Many legislators, university administrators and campus police chiefs tout the success of campus policing as their ability to support safety stemming from specialized knowledge and close connections to the campus community (Peak, 2008). This premise is further supported by academic research that found campus police focus more on student safety than city police (Anderson, 1996). While one study found no significant short-term effects on crime rates caused by employing a college police department, it did reveal a significant long-term impact to reduce violent crimes by employing college police (Heaton, 2017).

Most colleges today offer comprehensive multidisciplinary resources to their community members. In addition to the police, colleges often employ counseling centers, student health, student affairs, academic affairs, equal opportunity and diversity, wellness education and mediation departments.

Using their specialized knowledge and close campus connections, college police can guide those in need to resources in their network that often fall outside of traditional criminal justice responses to resolve nonviolent matters. Many of these campus resources, such as counseling centers and student wellness departments, help college students before their struggles reach the point of crisis requiring police intervention (Figueroa, 2021). In spite of the unique effectiveness of the campus police model, it has been swept up in the national dialog over abolishing the police.

Abolish Campus Policing Debate in the 2020s
Until recent years, the role of campus law enforcement has experienced a relatively unopposed 50-year expansion since its primary emergence in the 1960s and 1970s. Campus community support, in part, has been due to the belief that college campuses can be dangerous, thus requiring the need for college police. One may be perplexed as to why some community constituents who demanded the expansion of college police departments in the 1960s would now advocate for the disarmament of the very college police established to support their safety.

Abolitionists strategically chose to focus on college policing to initiate their efforts (McDowell, 2018). It is an interesting approach, considering research reveals young people are less likely to have positive attitudes about police (Wilson, 2015). The murder of George Floyd in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic though, galvanized social, political, business and media stakeholders toward a shared vision to “reimagine” and, increasingly, toward “defunding” and “abolishing” the police (DanDerWerff, 2020).

The death of George Floyd did not involve campus police officers; however, it spurred newfound social and political support to abolish college policing.

Several movements are striving to abolish police from college campuses altogether (DisarmUC, 2020). At least 44 student led petitions have been filed since by July 2020 to abolish police services from college campuses across the nation (Barajas, 2020). College administrators feeling the pressure of student activists and an increasing numbers of faculty begun holding “reimagining public safety” town halls and safety symposiums.

These efforts have already seen some success. In February 2021, Los Angeles officials announced they were removing 100 police officers from the schools and reducing the Los Angeles School Police budget to “reinvest” in the ‘Black Student Achievement Plan’ (Jake, 2021). In April 2021, during a public town hall meeting, University of California (UC) Board Regent chair John Perez shared he was open to discussions to reduce campus police across the 10 UC campuses by up to 40% (Turpin, 2021).

Pursuing a Holistic Safety Model
Decisions on the future role of campus law enforcement may ultimately be detrimental to college communities if not guided by principles for inclusive safety meant for all members of the campus.

“When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that is a problem for all of us” (The Economic Times, 2014),” said Pres. Barack Obama. “Campus administrators and campus police chiefs need to embrace those desiring to reimagine college policing as community partners in the joint pursuit towards the creation of enhanced solutions to the ever-growing complex safety challenges. College police have the opportunity now to lead transformational change in partnership with their communities by taking proactive measures towards a shift to policing that is effective, and also inclusive.”

Two Views – Armed or Unarmed?
The current debate on the future of campus policing often centers around two polar scenarios: campuses with no armed campus police or campuses with armed campus police. Neither of these proposed scenarios align with the principle of providing an inclusively safe campus environment for all community members.

The abolitionist argument to eliminate armed campus police and not to allow local city police to respond in their stead does not provide a solution to address violence or crime occurring upon campuses. Yet, others who would argue for the need of armed campus police with no change in campus policing are missing the opportunity to provide safety services more effectively to the whole community.

It is evident not all police calls-for-service require a response by an armed campus police officer. Yet this is exactly the safety model the majority of campuses utilize today. Conversely, an unarmed public safety or security officer is not equipped to respond to a call-for-service involving violence or complex criminal investigations.

Over the last fifty years, the role of college police expanded to community caretaker and social worker due to the convenience of having college police available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the financial savings from not having to rely upon others. As we explore the opportunities to reimagine policing, it is equally important to reimagine the existing social service model used on campuses.

The Paradigm Shift
It is time for a paradigm shift in college policing by introducing a new holistic safety model that applies a tiered guardianship approach to support inclusive safety on campuses. Jumping ahead only five years shows us what can be done.

The new-tiered guardianship approach uses other professionals with specialized expertise as first responders to non-police related incidents. Just as fire departments responds to medical aid and fires, social workers and behavioral health professionals would now respond to incidents involving matters such as homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health/illness.

Additionally, unarmed public safety officers would now augment college police personnel, responding to non-violent and routine criminal matters, such as theft reports and building security checks/ unlocks.

The college police would respond as a support resource to the other first responders in this tiered guardianship approach, just as they do for the Thre department when an incident requires police assistance. Using a holistic safety model, the primary role for college police has become one of community guardian rather than enforcer like their city police counterparts. Campus communities benefit from having college police onsite to continue and respond to violence and complex criminal matters. Calls to defund or abolish campus police have subsided as the college community increasingly sees how the new model works, and that they are still safe even as fewer armed officers are in their midst.

Research has shown increased interactions outside formal police enforcement actions can significantly enhance the cooperation between the campus police and its community (Williams, 2015). Research has also demonstrated when people relate with the police, they tend to view them more positively, with legitimacy (Bradford, 2014).

The paradigm shift from enforcer to guardian on college campuses described above would further enhance community relations in support of inclusive safety, and can be a roadmap for college policing for the next 50 years.

The Future of Campus Safety
The role of campus law enforcement is at a strategic juncture. Whether campus police will enhance or diminish safety on college campuses ultimately depends upon the social and political decisions made today by university communities. Safety on college campuses requires that we challenge the status quo. As we do, the future safety of campus communities depends on the success of realigning campus policing with the purpose initially imagined 50 years ago when campus policing emerged – to support a safe and secure campus environment for the whole community. It is time to enact a holistic safety model using a tiered guardianship approach in partnership with social services to support inclusive safety upon college campuses.

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.


  • Making Safety and Security Intrinsic to School Design

    Public anxieties about school safety are escalating across the country. According to a 2023 Gallup report, 44% of parents fear for their child’s physical safety at school, a 10 percentage-point increase since 2019. Unfortunately, these fears are likely to increase if the incidence of school tragedies continues to mount. As a result, school leaders are now charged with two non-negotiable responsibilities. The first, as always, is to ensure kids have what they need to learn, grow, and thrive. Sadly, their second responsibility is to keep the children in their care safe from threats and physical danger. Read Now

  • Unlocking Peace of Mind

    In a perfect world, every school would have an unlimited budget to help secure their schools. In reality, schools must prioritize what budget they have while navigating the complexities surrounding school security and lockdown Read Now

  • Emerging Campus Access Control Solutions

    Emerging solutions in campus access control can mean different things. Usually, we expect the topic to focus on the very latest in door security products and solutions that have just been recently released or are about to be launched. After all, staying up on improvements to keep campuses safer is critical. Plus, it’s always interesting and exciting to learn what’s new and how innovations are going to better protect lives and assets and help the industry be even more successful. Read Now

  • Here’s How Instructional Audio Can Play a Key Role in School Safety

    Ensuring the safety of students and employees is critical in today’s educational environment. While the threat of a school shooting is in the back of everyone’s mind, the truth is there are many possible scenarios that could crop up at any time in classrooms, hallways, and other school spaces—from fights or altercations to a sick child or staff member who requires emergency attention. Read Now