Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault, police brutality and racist violence
Our campus has a safety issue.
This safety issue has nothing to do with a lack of campus security forces — Boston University Police and BU security staff — are distributed throughout our campus.
Rather, our safety issue has more to do with the fact that these campus security forces — both explicitly and implicitly — are not designed, or willing, to protect the safety of all BU students.
Recently, Students for Justice in Palestine, Divest BU and Action BU demanded more transparency from the BUPD, with the latter two saying they support its abolition.
This is not the first time Boston University security personnel have been called out for its racism.
BU Security guards have a history of harassing students of color and blocking students of color from entering shared spaces.
In 1972, BU security guards allegedly assaulted a Black high school student named George Stone. Stone, who worked at the West Campus cafeteria, tried to enter his place of work but was stopped by two BU Officers who beat and pushed him. Stone was then arrested for trespassing.
In 1997, 42 students of color created a petition detailing how they were repeatedly harassed, or even escorted out of the building, by BU security guards when they tried to enter their dorms.
The BUPD also has a storied history of violence and racism.
In 1984, BU Police Sergeant Kevin Bourque shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old named Christopher Dignan as Dignan was in a car.
In 2005, BUPD records were made public in a court case which found that out of 10 people stopped by the BUPD, 7 of them were Black, despite Black students making up less than 3% of BU’s student population at the time.
The court case involved two former BUPD officers who sued BUPD for wrongful termination. The officers claimed that they had been fired because they confronted then-BUPD Chief Robert Shea for the department’s alleged widespread practice of racial profiling, gender discrimination and nepotism.
In the proceedings of the court case, it was revealed that Shea kept a photograph of a Black man being choked by white hands inside of his car. He allegedly stated he kept it because his wife, who was the then vice president of enrollment at BU, “gets a kick out of it.”
Shea was never fired and was allowed to retire peacefully.
The BUPD’s racist actions continue to this day. Last April, the BUPD wrestled a Black man to the ground who they suspected had assaulted a student. Multiple students recorded the incident and felt uncomfortable with the BUPD’s use of force.
BUPD has also been utilized to intimidate student protests. On Oct. 15, Divest BU held a small protest, and students were questioned by plainclothes BUPD officers. Students claimed the officers never introduced themselves and “created a hostile environment.”
Student groups also called for increased transparency from the BUPD given that BUPD Chief Kelly Nee went to Israel along with other local police chiefs for a training led by the Israeli military and police officials in 2017.
The BUPD, as a campus police force, is not held to the same public reporting requirements as state police. Moreover, most legal courts have agreed that campus police are not necessarily held to constitutional protections.
To be fair, there are some accountability measures in place regulating the BUPD.
When asked about student criticism against the BUPD, President Brown referred students to the Community Safety Advisory Board, formed last year in order to, as stated by Brown in a community-wide letter, “help foster physical and psychological safety and security for all members of the Boston University community, including students and employees of color, and other underrepresented, nontraditional, and marginalized communities on campus.”
One student stated that she contacted the advisory board to bring up valid concerns, but felt disheartened after their conversation with the Advisory Board’s officials.
Even if we were to ignore all of BUPD’s past and present bad actions, one would not need to look beyond the BUPD’s and the administration’s statements to determine their seeming lack of regard for student safety.
BUPD’s official mission statement states that the BUPD aims to, among other tasks, “improve the perception of safety as well as the quality of life within the University community.” It is interesting that they chose to highlight the police force’s aims at improving “the perception of safety” rather than actual safety. Why did they take the pains to make this distinction?
This distinction is reinforced by the administration. In 2015, a BU student was sexually assaulted in her dorm room. She later sued BU, and the University’s legal team responded with a court filing section titled “The University Made No Definite Or Certain Promise To Keep Students Safe.”
From their own public statements to their racist history and present, it is clear the BUPD is not designed, nor does it seem willing, to protect all students on campus. Defunding this institution — or outright abolishing it — and creating new services in its wake that better address student and community needs may actually improve student safety.
You may feel hesitant to defund or abolish the police, as you may worry you’ll have no one to call if you were ever in a dangerous situation.
But as many activists have pointed out, abolition requires that we create more community services that would address people’s needs and community safety. To put it simply, you would always have someone to call — the number would just be different.
For instance, BU could increase funding for Scarlet SafeWalk, a program in which students escort anyone feeling unsafe to their home. BU could create a mental health task force specifically designed to deal with mental health crises and expand funding and resources for BU’s Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center.
The BUPD has an egregious history and present of violence and racism. If we are to ever truly approach a safe campus, we cannot continue to rely on these racist police institutions.
CORRECTION: This article was changed to more clearly reflect that Officer Kevin Bourque was never charged for his actions. A past version of this article stated that Kevin Bourque “murdered” Christopher Dignan. It was changed to “shot and killed” because Bourque was never charged.