fb-pixel Skip to main content

Rein in campus police

Law enforcement officers on university and college campuses have too much power and less accountability than municipal police.

A Harvard Police SUV parked outside the Smith Center in Harvard Square in June.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

On college campuses around the country, student activists and organizations have, since the police killing of George Floyd, been calling on their administrations to disarm or entirely disband campus police. While the solution may not be to “abolish” campus police entirely, as some activists are demanding, the problem they are pointing to is clear: Private law-enforcement agencies that patrol campuses and surrounding neighborhoods exhibit many of the same patterns of racial bias, violence, and militarization as other police forces in the United States — and yet some are even less accountable to the public. It’s time to rein in the power of campus police units in Boston and throughout the country.

The majority of campus police officers are armed, authorized to make arrests, and have a jurisdiction that extends beyond school grounds. Some campus police departments have been able to acquire weapons from the military, including grenade launchers (modified for the use of tear gas), armored vehicles, and M-16 assault rifles. And other schools, including Tufts and Boston University, have sent some of their campus police officials to receive counterterrorism training from the Israeli military.


Yet the most common crimes committed on college campuses tend to be property related. At Harvard for example, 95 percent of campus crime involves property theft or damage. And there’s no need to be heavily armed to serve their basic purpose: According to University of Pennsylvania criminologist Emily Owens, campus police tend to have a “harm reduction model of crime control,” as she told The Atlantic in 2015, because they’re less focused on local law enforcement than publicly funded police agencies are and more invested in student safety.

“Why would 90 percent of [campus] police officers need [a gun] if most of what they’re doing is handing out underage drinking citations?” Charles H.F. Davis, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan who has studied race and racism on college campuses, asked in an interview with the Globe editorial board.


Some police officers employed by colleges and universities have exhibited racist and dangerous behavior, much like their municipal- or state-level counterparts. Earlier this year, for example, a Harvard Crimson investigation asserted that a Harvard police officer used force during three separate arrests of Black men over the span of five months. At one point, video footage viewed by Crimson reporters showed, the officer pressed his hand on a man’s neck to the point that the man said he couldn’t breathe, and one of the arrested men said that the officer called him the n-word. Other interactions with campus police have been lethal. In 2015, for example, a University of Cincinnati officer shot and killed a Black man during a minor traffic stop. That school’s police force alone has killed at least four Black men since 1997.

These kinds of incidents aren’t just limited to nonstudents — not that affiliation with a school should matter when a person has been abused by an officer of the law. At American University last year, a Black student was forcibly dragged out of her university-owned apartment by the school’s police officers. The student’s friends say that police went to her apartment for a wellness check, and AU insists that the altercation involved “hours of intervention and de-escalation” before the student was removed. And in 2017, a Georgia Tech officer shot and killed a gender nonbinary student who had suffered from clinical depression and attempted suicide.


The full extent of campus police abuses isn’t known because, as private agencies, their actions are often shrouded in greater secrecy than those of municipal police departments. Across the country, private campus police departments are not subject to the same public record compliance that public police agencies are. In other words, many aren’t required to publicly disclose full records of any incident, even in cases like minor traffic stops, which creates a gap in knowledge of how campus police units operate.

In some cities, officers roving beyond school grounds have long caused tension between schools and the long-term residents who live around them, as is the case with the University of Chicago’s police and their treatment of Black residents in Hyde Park. In fact, the University of Chicago Police Department has jurisdiction over 65,000 residents, only 15,000 of whom are students. When a campus police chief reports to the university president as opposed to the mayor or another elected official, patrolling nonstudents becomes a nondemocratic operation because the chief will do what’s in the best interest of the university leaders, not necessarily of the surrounding community.

This is not to say that schools’ private police forces should be entirely eliminated. But as schools face budgetary challenges in the coming years as a result of COVID-19, and with fewer students to protect on campus for the foreseeable future, campus police is one costly department that warrants rethinking. Universities might find that some policing funds would be better spent on other public safety programs, such as improving mental health facilities or investing in sexual assault prevention programs. At a minimum, higher education leaders should demilitarize if not disarm campus police officers; offer greater transparency by reporting to students and surrounding communities their encounters, including racial data and incidents of officer violence; and limit the territories where campus police patrol and arrest to campus rather than surrounding neighborhoods.


The silver lining is that college campuses can often be a microcosm of and bellwether for broader society, which means that they could create models that inform how municipal or state police agencies reform in the years ahead. So as the nation reckons with its long history of racist policing, colleges and universities should use this time as an opportunity to reimagine what their private law enforcement agencies should look like — or if they should exist at all.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.