Among calls for abolition, experts weigh costs and benefits of WUPD for the campus and community
After a summer of nationwide protests over systemic racism and police brutality, college students across the country have looked to implement calls for racial justice at a local level by demanding the abolition of university police departments. At Washington University, more than 100 students recently marched across campus demanding the abolition of the Washington University Police Department (WUPD).
Emily Owens, a professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine, noted that many universities are seriously considering abolishing their police forces, and said that she would not be surprised if Washington University ended up doing the same.
“That would mean increased presence from the St. Louis police department,” Owens said. “Whatever the local…law enforcement agency would be, that would now be the agency that would respond to 911 calls.”
WUPD is a police force of 66 officers, with a jurisdiction of the areas in and around Washington University’s campus as well as student housing on the Delmar Loop.
“[WUPD has] jurisdiction…around campus and around The Loop area because students live over there,” Dr. Kimberly Morton, director of TRIO Student Support Services, said. “They have partnerships with U[niversity] City police, Clayton police, and the city [St. Louis Metro] police because those are the jurisdictions surrounding the Wash. U. campus and University City is where students live off campus.”
Washington University Associate Professor of Law Trevor Gardner said that there was overlap between the jurisdictions of WUPD and St. Louis police departments and there was “often a question of jurisdictional boundaries.”
“Over time, [WUPD] has become sort of a real police department where you are protecting [29,000] people,” Morton said. “Wash. U. is a small city. You’ve got 14,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff—it’s a lot of people they are protecting and serving.”
A key difference between general and college police departments, Owens said, is “the relationship between the people who are policed and the person ultimately making the decisions about what the police do.”
Most police departments work for an elected official with an interest in re-election, which Owens said added an aspect of accountability.
“The mayor and the governor have an interest in getting re-elected, and that is the way that many police departments change: There is pressure from that elected official who wants to ultimately satisfy the people who are policed,” Owens said.
Although private departments such as WUPD are directly responsible to the University’s administration, the groups being policed by these departments, which include students as well as residents of neighborhoods with lots of student housing, have no direct influence over them.
“In the case of private university police forces, the…police report to the president of the university,…[who] is not elected by the student body,” Owens added. “The [president’s incentives] are not the same as someone who is directly elected by the student body. So if you’re thinking about policies that a private university police choose to engage in, you need to think about what does the president want to happen, which is different than what a mayor or governor might want to happen because there isn’t an elected link.”
Gardner was skeptical about the potential benefits of WUPD abolition, arguing that the alternative of inviting outside police departments from the city and surrounding municipalities could potentially have dangerous consequences. In recent years, the St. Louis Police Department has perpetrated racism, brutality and corruption, and is widely considered to be one of America’s most dysfunctional police forces.
“WUPD is much more progressive than the St. Louis police department and they seem much more invested with community policing and building relationships with people in the immediate vicinity of the University and [with] students,” Gardner said. “They seem more sensitive to use of force issues than what you’ll find…in the St. Louis police department.”
One mediating influence on University police forces can be parents, who would be upset if students were arrested by University employees for things such as low-level drug use, Gardner added.
“Campus police often provide sanctuary in a sense for campus criminal behavior,” Gardner said. “Campuses are very protective of their students…and are disinclined to immediately arrest students for criminal conduct. I’d like to see your normal police department take a similar approach where they use a bit more discretion in deciding to arrest someone.”
In recent years, Morton said that WUPD has been more vigilant about taking an active role in the areas around campus.
“There was an incident where there was a dine and dash [at IHOP] and ten of our students…were not the ones who dined and dashed, but the police thought they were,” Morton said. “There were police officers involved—it was Richmond Heights and University City—and they did not call WUPD, and normally when students get in trouble they call WUPD so they can come and handle it.”
Students have long pointed out racial biases in both WUPD and other St. Louis police departments, claiming that the presence of police officers around campus fails to protect students of color. The students stopped at IHOP were Black.
Even if WUPD generally extends more courtesy to students, many proponents of WUPD abolition have highlighted the way that the force treats members of the local community who are not affiliated with the University as one of the problems surrounding it, arguing that it results in the overcriminalization of surrounding neighborhoods.
“Increasing policing around the surrounding areas and increasing the presence of Washington University patrols puts St. Louis citizens in danger by increasing possible contacts with police officers,” junior Nana Kusi told Student Life after an Oct. 24 abolition march.
In spite of the uncertainty about what might take the place of WUPD, Owens pointed out that an important element of police abolition is shifting funding to other areas that need it, which proponents of abolition note will reduce crime.
“One way we can figure out if getting rid of a police force is a good idea is by trying it and seeing what happens,” Owens said. “No one really knows exactly what is going to happen to crime, particularly if the money that is moved from policing departments is put into other things which have also been shown to reduce crime.”
For example, Owens pointed out that many schools have aggressively experimented with non-police responses to things such as underage drinking.
“A lot of potentially criminal actions or the problems university police respond to have, at their heart, someone drinking too much,” Owens said. “Increased alcohol awareness or education, having public health workers or someone trained in alcohol response would be an interesting thing to explore.”
University administrators have been noncommittal about potential reforms to WUPD. At a meeting over the summer, Chancellor Andrew Martin said that the University would not necessarily disarm, defund or disband WUPD even if a majority of students of color said that it made them feel unsafe. The University’s public safety committee, primarily composed of staff, faculty and students, is currently working towards a set of recommendations about the role and scope of the force in coming years.
Regarding policies that might rethink WUPD’s role on campus, Morton expressed optimism that the University could work towards a safer campus environment for all.
“Reform is always good,” Morton said. “Change in policy, if needed, is always good if it benefits the students, faculty and staff that they serve.”