If we claim the goal of policing in this country is to maintain public safety, then policing as a whole, including campus police departments, are a colossal failure. It is well past time to reckon with what the Boston University Police Department truly contributes to campus, and move on to safer alternatives.
Throughout the next several weeks, I will make my argument through a series of segments explaining the case to abolish BUPD and replace it with alternatives that would better serve us as students and as a community.
Part 1: Student Experiences with BUPD (The Survey)
“On numerous occasions I have been followed by a police officer in a marked vehicle on campus. He remains in the same alleyway in South Campus and any time I would walk through South Campus this individual deliberately profiled and followed me for several blocks,” wrote one Afro-Latinx Boston University student. “My friends have been followed by police across campus on several occasions as well. Some have been racially profiled and questioned about their presence on campus and whether or not they’d attended BU. The presence of Boston police as well as BUPD has created a sense of fear within the black community at BU.”
The above quote is a response to a survey asking students to detail their experiences with the BU Police Department. Over these last few months, I’ve been conducting this survey with the aim to understand BUPD’s role on campus, and to consider the case to defund it. Many white students and non-Black students of color responded angrily at the mere suggestion of defunding campus police.
Keep in mind that only 36 people took the survey and that most respondents were white. The responses below are not representative of the entire student body at Boston University, but they are important to consider when measuring the relationship of the BUPD to students. Moreover, one’s individual positive experience with the BUPD cannot, in any way, invalidate someone’s negative experience.
One student, who checked every box — including “prefer not to say” — when asked for their race, wrote, “when walking home in the night, it is BUPD makes me safe. So I would say ‘Getting rid of BUPD from the campus’ is stupid. I also feel some groups of people is selfish, as they just care about and fight for their own good, never care about other groups of peoples.”
“I believe it would be incredibly ignorant to try applying legislation spoken about for a specific unrelated region of the U.S and apply it to an area that is operating extremely well and has virtually NO ISSUES,” a white student wrote.
A Latinx student responded, “[I’ve had no interaction with the BUPD] yet but knowing that they’re there in case I’m in danger is comforting.”
One Black student wrote “no experience directly. I have occasionally waved to officers before in passing, they were always pleasant,” and an Arab student wrote, “I have never had a one on one experience with BUPD, but one said hello to me once, the guy seemed pretty cool.”
All of these students openly admit to never having had an experience with the BUPD — and yet they felt the need to defend their presence. Over and over again, students and parents stressed that the police gave them a feeling of safety, and thus, were above reproach.
It was disheartening, to say the least, to see how students prioritized their “feeling” of safety over the realities of campus policing. If we have learned anything in these last few months, it is that one’s comforting perception of the world does not equal reality.
The fact of the matter is that the BUPD has been reported to racially profile Black students and other students of color. This does not mean, however, that every student of color has experiences being racially profiled by the BUPD — as is clear by the responses above — but that they have shown a pattern of behavior that specifically targets Black students and other students of color.
“I have interacted with the BUPD [two] times and I cannot confidently say that any of those experiences required the police,” a female Latinx student wrote. “In ALL my experiences, BUPD caused significantly more stress than the original incident that warranted them.”
She described how they mishandled and harassed her when she reported being sexually harassed. She also described how, after losing her backpack in class, BUPD aggressively searched through her property and demanded she come in at midnight to pick it up.
“BUPD took my backpack, RUMMAGED through my things, and then called me. This made me feel extremely violated, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to me if I had had weed in my bag or something. I rarely ever drink (I can count on one hand the amount of times I have), but this night I was slightly tipsy.
I spent my whole night having extreme anxiety that if I came to BUPD to retrieve my backpack, that they would find a way to get me in trouble for my sobriety … BUPD had told me that I needed to get my backpack tonight (midnight), or it would be submitted as evidence or something weird like that and that I wouldn’t be able to retrieve it without paperwork.
I was literally in my pajamas when they called and hauled ass over there within 15 minutes before midnight being so afraid of what could happen … the anxiety was bad. I feel that this situation could have been resolved by a different department easily. I would honestly be happy with anybody but the police.”
The BUPD is known to show extreme unprofessionalism when dealing with small cases, and apathy when dealing with more serious ones.
One white student reported being apprehended and forced into a hospital by the BUPD for being inebriated, and then being forced to pay more than $6,000 in hospital fees.
“I was forced to get ‘counseling’ and pay a fine to the school. I spoke to the resident hall director about how poorly I was treated by this BUPD officer, whose name I will always regret not getting, and he had nothing to say to me about it … BUPD is just as abusive of their power as any other cop.”
Another white student wrote, “I was a victim [of] an attempted kidnapping on campus and BUPD told me they couldn’t investigate because there were no witnesse[s] and suggested I calmed down and try to go to sleep.”
Another student, who did not state their race, had reported what seemed like domestic violence to the anonymous BUPD line, only to be later outed by the police to their alleged abuser as being the person who reported it.
The issue of policing on campus also extends to Resident Assistants, who often police and harass students of color while letting white students off scot-free. A student described how she and her friends of color, who she wrote are often on full-ride financial aid scholarships and cannot afford to have a federal charge on their record, would get the RA called on them for minor infractions. Meanwhile, white students “screaming and laughing drunkenly in the common areas with about 6 bottles of vodka in the open and taking shots” and “[smoking] out the entire floor with weed and cigarettes (where it obviously smelled) and would sell ecstasy and acid out of [their] dorm” would suffer no consequences.
Her friends “were more often blamed for things (like the rancid weed smell on the floor) than the white residents who were actually making the smell,” the student wrote. “My friends of color would go through extreme precautions to do anything, such as go off campus. The white kid who sold ecstasy and acid would literally smoke out the ENTIRE floor and never had any accountability — he was extremely wealthy as well.”
The @BlackatBU Instagram page posted a statement from a student who wrote an RA falsely accused them and their roommate of having weed in their room. “We were the only two Black people on the floor. We spent the first few weeks of freshman year defending ourselves over a false accusation.”
I am not saying that the BUPD has never been helpful. I have gotten emails and responses from (mainly non-Black) people politely explaining how the BUPD graciously helped them with their respective cases.
My point is that one’s individual experiences with the BUPD are not universal, and there are alternatives to policing that could serve all of our well-being in safer ways.
Most people who responded to the survey detailed incidents of police interactions with intoxicated students. One student who did not provide their race wrote the police were nice enough not to arrest them for carrying weed (though he knew others that had been dragged away in handcuffs), and another that the cops “have saved and helped my friends walking home drunk.”
If BUPD is primarily dealing with intoxicated young adults, why not better institute a task force dedicated to dealing with substance abuse and offer a safe way for students to reach out without fear of criminalization or arrest? Why not create services and organizations specifically designed to help students with drug abuse, rather than punish them for it?
More importantly, if BUPD has been reported for harassing and intimidating Black students and other students of color on campus, why on earth are we still employing them?
Public safety is not automatically achieved by unleashing violence actors into the community. It is clear BUPD has failed to truly meet public safety needs for all students if it only does so for some. It is well past time to come up with a solution.
If you as a student, or a parent of a student, are currently feeling reluctant, scared or angry at the mere prospect of abolishing BUPD and replacing it with more effective alternatives, ask yourself this: are you more attached to a feeling of safety, or the real possibility of achieving it?