Student committee members and activists dissatisfied with WU public safety report

and | Senior News Editors

After Washington University’s public safety committee released its final report March 1, many of campus’ student activists involved in its creation expressed disappointment in the limited scope of the recommendations.

The report recommended steps to replace or supplement WUPD officers with trained crisis response workers when responding to mental health calls and suggested new measures for transparency and accountability.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

According to law student and committee member Cass Oliver, the committee’s work was constrained by what they thought administrators would actually be willing to implement.

“I think everyone on the committee did a good job for what they could do,” Oliver said. “For any of the shortcomings, I honestly blame the administration, because it is their decision to implement these things…if it was up to us, these are not the recommendations we would have. But we are obviously working within a system…it’s politics, at the end of the day, even in this committee where it shouldn’t be.”

“Right now we have a lot of really good ideas, a lot of good language, but nothing’s been implemented,” committee member junior Tennyson Holmes said. “So at the end of day there’s nothing to be happy about just because the job’s not done.”

One of the most significant parts of the public safety committee’s final report was a recommendation that the University earmark additional funds for WUPD to hire crisis response workers who could respond to mental health calls instead of or alongside WUPD officers. Holmes explained that many students on the committee had pushed for guidelines that would ensure that these new workers would be housed outside of WUPD, but the final language in the report was less strict than some had hoped.

“On one hand, students wanted… language that would hold administrators accountable,” Holmes said. “But at the same time, administrators were expressing that they understood that, but there has to be some vagueness in there to leave flexibility… because if they’re handcuffed to specific language, then problems will arise.”

Another point of contention for Holmes was the fact that in order to hire these new crisis response workers, the report actually called for increasing WUPD’s funding, despite calls from students and from activists across the country to defund police departments.

“I wanted money earmarked specifically for mental health resources, just because I’m not trying to give WUPD an extra boost in their budget when it’s supposed to be for specific purposes,” Holmes said.

However, WashU Students for Abolition member sophomore Bri Chandler expressed doubts about increasing WUPD’s budget, even if the funds were designated for mental health response. Chandler wrote in a statement to Student Life that WUPD shouldn’t be involved with mental health crisis responses to begin with.

“Mental health, as an aspect of student safety, isn’t just about individualized crisis situations,” Chandler wrote. “It’s about creating a culture in which students feel secure and healthy… It can take weeks for a student to book a few therapy sessions at Habif. It’s a problem that our mental health services are understaffed while WUPD is actively hiring.”

While one of the recommendations was to create more avenues for the community to provide feedback, Oliver noted that student activists had long been calling for the defunding, disarming and disbanding of WUPD, arguing that additional methods for collecting feedback would only be effective if the administration was committed to responding to student concerns.

“Unfortunately, the students who will use these channels are the students who already use other channels,” she said. “What’s the expansion [of communication] if you’re not going to listen to it?”

Chandler said that she did not feel like her voice or the voices of other anti-WUPD activists were seriously considered by administrators.

“While students who propose abolitionist views may be in the minority, it is important to recognize that students within demographic minorities, such as ‘students of color and queer, transgender and nonbinary students’—have been far less comfortable than the average student in their interactions with the police. I can definitively say there is overlap between these two groups,” Chandler wrote. “Therefore, I feel that the committee’s lack of care towards abolitionist sentiment is not one of just ideological difference, but one with racialized and gendered implications for whose safety and comfort is prioritized.”

Oliver said that the report failed to adequately consider what safety means for marginalized students.

“Having police around makes me feel unsafe,” she said. “No matter the interaction I have with them, I don’t feel safe… We’re not looking at the nuances of what safety means for Black people, and specifically Black students at Wash. U.”

The report included survey data that showed significantly lower levels of comfort with WUPD among racial, sexual and gender minorities. Despite the discrepancies, committee co-chair Stephanie Kurtzman said that she believed the data showed “an overwhelming positive experience and perception of the police department.”

Junior Lawton Blanchard, a committee member, noted the importance of not merely considering numbers but looking at the meanings behind them to ensure the safety of marginalized students.

“If we’re just looking at the numbers when you go to a university that’s so heavily skewed towards upper-class, white, straight, etc. students, you’re automatically going to be saying that the concerns of straight white heterosexual male students are more important than anyone who is not that category,” Blanchard said. “And so if we’re looking at the numbers of students of color, students who are low SES, students who have LGBT identities, showing that they’re very uncomfortable with WUPD and policing in general—if we just go ahead and say that that’s an issue that can be resolved, we’re saying that the concerns of those communities are not as important.”

Oliver agreed, and pointed out that the discomfort of marginalized students was largely not taken into account in the committee’s recommendations.

“Looking at these statistics that clearly speak volumes to policing, how much do they really inform our recommendations? Probably not as much as they should have,” she said.

Additionally, Oliver pointed out that the report failed to consider the perspectives of community members living in areas surrounding the University, even though several neighborhoods around campus are heavily patrolled by WUPD.

“We know Wash. U.’s presence extends beyond the Danforth Campus, so that was probably the biggest shortcoming—that we did not touch on Wash. U.’s presence in other communities outside of people who attend Wash. U. or work for Wash. U.,” Oliver said.

Blanchard agreed, saying the oversight meant “prioritizing the sense of comfort for students who, realistically, vacation in St. Louis for four years over the people who actually live here.”

She also said that while the committee’s conversation was heavily focused on off-campus violent crime, saying that other issues are far more relevant to students.

“If you’re going to talk about actually attacking violence against students, we would bring up things like sexual assault, and then need to bring up things like Greek Life,” Blanchard said. “But Greek Life was brought up exactly zero times. Interpersonal violence within the context of the University was never brought up, even though the rates of that are extremely high at Wash. U.”

During the 2020–2021 school year to date, WUPD’s crime log lists 25 crime reports. Of these 25, all but three are pending larceny cases, most involving stolen bikes that remain unrecovered. Two of the other cases are also pending, meaning that just one case is marked as having been cleared by WUPD.

Although WUPD is an armed police force with 66 full-time employees and substantial funding, it almost exclusively responds to cases of petty theft and rarely succeeds in recovering property. Given this, Blanchard argued that University resources could be better directed toward combating things such as sexual violence, which affects at least 13% of students but tends to go unaddressed by WUPD.

In addition to ignoring the prevalence of interpersonal violence, Holmes expressed disappointment that the possibility of disarming WUPD officers on campus did not receive more consideration.

“Something that did come up and that I’m personally going to pursue is a form of demilitarization, because of my personal belief I don’t think all WUPD officers need firearms,” he said. “I get it if you’re going past Delmar or if you’re going to different areas at night… but in the daytime when you’re in plainclothes and walking around, I feel like a lot of students will feel safer if those officers don’t have lethal weapons.”

Holmes plans to continue advocating for disarming WUPD officers through his role in Student Union, and is currently working on a survey to obtain data about demilitarization so that it can be explored further.

Blanchard was less optimistic about the University’s capacity for reform, saying that she did not anticipate any significant change resulting from the recommendations.

“The committee’s whole thing is to have something to point at and say, ‘Look, we’re doing something, we’re responding to the student activism so that we can wait until students graduate and then immediately kill it and nip it in the bud,’ which is a very common trend with university organizing,” Blanchard said. “That’s why it’s really hard to create long standing changes, because the University doesn’t want to change.”

Chandler held similar views, drawing a parallel to the ongoing national struggle for police reform.

“At the national level, police departments commit themselves to reform all the time,” Chandler wrote. “Reforms that ostensibly hold police accountable rarely succeed in preventing the violence inherent to policing—Minneapolis PD put $300,000 into police bias training in 2015. However, we all know that George Floyd was murdered 5 years later.”

Oliver agreed, saying that after going through the committee process, she was actually less optimistic about the prospect of WUPD reform.

“Policing is fundamentally flawed,” Blanchard said. “Reform is not possible. We need to abolish WUPD.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.