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A Debate Over Defunding The Campus Police Takes Root At The University Of Illinois

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University of Illinois senior, Latrel Crawford, speaks during a protest to defund and abolition University of Illinois Police on the Urbana campus on Oct 1, 2020.

This is the first of a two-part digital story series. The second story publishes on Illinois Newsroom tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

URBANA – Surrounded by dozens of people wearing face masks, carrying pots, pans and handmade protest signs, William Burke stepped up to a microphone outside the University of Illinois Police Department on the Urbana campus. Rain clouds loomed overhead as Burke addressed a crowd of racially diverse students carrying signs that read “Defund UIPD.” Dozens had gathered as part of a protest against the campus police in early October of 2020. 

Listen to U of I student abolitionists in their own words: 

Burke, buoyed by the rage of a recent interaction with university cops, yelled into the microphone, “When I say officer, y’all say overseer.” The crowd followed his directions.

From left to right: Latrel Crawford, William Burke, Leojae Bleu Steward, all seniors at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus, are advocating for the defunding and abolishment of the University of Illinois Police Department, saying the officers target students of color. Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Newsroom

Burke explained that his choice of language came from history; police forces in the American south were created in the 18th century to chase down runaway slaves and prevent slave revolts. Burke, a Black 21-year-old senior studying theater, then turned his attention to the university police specifically. He described how in early September, while skateboarding down one of the campus’ busiest thoroughfares, he was stopped by campus police after he turned right at a red light. (A warning issued to Burke by UIPD said he ran two red lights, which Burke disputes.) 

In an interview after the protest, Burke said he was terrified when multiple officers responded to the scene. 

“Because I’m a Black man. And I didn’t do anything harmful or wrong,” Burke said. “Like they’re doing that type of stuff, pulling somebody over for skateboarding… And that’s what they’re focused on.”

Burke said the interaction is more than a waste of university police resources, it also sends a message to Black students and other students of color on campus.

“I’m paying this money to go to this school… and then they have like the cops there to make me know that even though I go here, and this is my school, it’s not my place. That’s how it feels to me at least.”

In May of 2020, global protests erupted after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, by a white police officer. His death sparked protests demanding not just police reforms — but defunding and abolition of police. Students on college and university campuses across the country — including in Michigan, California, Massachusetts, Illinois and Connecticut — began calling on their institutions to defund and disband their campus police forces. Students at the University of Illinois’s Urbana and Chicago campuses began making similar demands last summer as part of a growing abolitionist movement. An estimated 95% of all four-year colleges and universities with more than 2,500 students operate their own campus law enforcement agencies, which are typically afforded the same powers and supplied with similar weapons as municipal and state police agencies. Students calling for the abolition of campus police forces say the agencies are rooted in racist practices that lead to disproportionate arrests of people of color — particularly Black people. At the U of I, student activists want the roughly $8.2 million annual budget for campus police to be redirected into mental health services and other resources for marginalized students. Meanwhile, UIPD — and police at the University of Illinois Chicago — say campus officers are  necessary to keep the university safe. They acknowledge the need to reform, but say eliminating their departments would endanger lives and campus property. 

Burke said he began referring to himself as an abolitionist after Floyd’s killing. His friends, theater majors Latrel Crawford and Leojae Bleu Steward, have had a similar evolution. Both Steward and Crawford described incidents in which they felt mistreated or treated differently by campus cops than their white peers. They said parties with a majority of Black students present draw the attention and presence of police, whereas white students are allowed to gather with little to no police presence. They also said they don’t feel protected by campus police. Steward, who is a Black 21-year-old, said there was an incident in which a patron at the campus’ performing art center asked if she could touch his hair. Steward said he told her no, and she tried to touch him anyway. 

“My supervisor told the police [officer] on duty, and nothing was done. Nothing. Like this person wasn’t escorted out,” Steward says.

Steward, a Chicago native, said he expected some level of prejudice when he enrolled at the U of I, “but like being actually here, and experiencing the different prejudices that exist within the community, and especially with UIPD was something that was very eye opening.”

In September 2019, Crawford, also a Black 21-year-old, said he was working as a resident advisor at a dorm when he discovered a noose in the elevator. He said neither UIPD nor the administration did enough to address the situation. Crawford said he would have liked UIPD to collaborate with students and campus housing officials around how to report bias and intolerance in the campus community. The student who placed the noose in the elevator was later identified and expelled.

All three students, as well as those demonstrating in favor of defunding and abolishing UIPD, say reforms won’t cut it. 

“[UIPD] is specifically funded through the university system, and they are the ones that are being the oppressors to the students. So, that’s why we’re saying we need them defunded and abolished,” Steward said.

In an open letter sent to U of I System president Tim Killeen last summer, student activists demanded, among other things, that the U of I:

  • Defund and eventually disband UIPD.
  • Create and implement a civilian police accountability commission composed of students, workers, and faculty while the UIPD undergoes defunding.
  • Terminate the relationship between the campus’ Office of Student Conflict Resolution and local law enforcement and reliance on police reports as evidence for university disciplinary procedures.
  • Cancel all contracts with Champaign, Urbana and Champaign County police agencies for supplemental law enforcement support, and ban joint patrol programs on campus.
  • End the agreement between the U of I system and the Police Training Institute.
  • Create new structures to support community health and social well-being.
  • Use the roughly $8.2 million spent on UIPD annually to increase mental health and counseling resources, including the hiring of racially and gender-diverse staff. 
  • Rescind recognition of the UIPD Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and refuse to renew its collective bargaining agreements with the university.
  • Create a Transformative Justice Center and immediately hire a transformative justice coordinator. This center will address conflict and harm without relying on police and punishment, but instead will focus on accountability, redress, and healing. It will provide paid positions for student mediators and mandatory training for campus employees.

UIPD Arrest Data  

Listen as Illinois Newsroom Reporter Lee Gaines goes on a ride along with campus police:

Between 2016 and 2019, UIPD arrested more than 3,700 people, according to data obtained via a Freedom of Information request. These arrests include everything from traffic tickets, ordering them to appear in court but releasing them on the scene to physically taking them to jail. Broken down by race, Black people account for about 29% of total arrests, while white people make up 42% of arrests; Asian individuals make up 22% of arrests and Hispanic people account for only about 6% of total arrests.

But during the same time period, more than half (54%) of the 576 people physically taken to jail by UIPD were Black — while only about a third (34%) were white. Black students, however, make up only about 7% of the student body on the campus, and Black people account for about 12% of the metro population, according to Census estimates

Of those issued traffic tickets or ordered to appear in court, about 24% were Black; while white people accounted for about 43%.

(We did not analyze arrest data for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and sudden closure of campus during the spring semester of that year.)

The most frequently cited offenses for all Black arrestees, including both those taken to jail and not taken to jail, during that time period were warrant arrests — mostly in-state warrants — followed by speeding, operating an uninsured motor vehicle, and driving without a license.

Excluding warrant arrests, Black arrestees account for 43% of those taken to jail between 2016 and 2019, while white people make up about 39% of those individuals. 

For white people, the most frequently cited offense is speeding violations — which accounted for 41% of all crimes associated with white arrestees — followed by operating an uninsured motor vehicle, expired registration and traffic sign violations. For Asian people, the top offenses are the same as for white individuals. 

UIPD Chief Alice Cary said “arrest numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.” Cary joined the department last summer, after spending two years as Chief of the University of Maryland, Baltimore Police Force. 

Cary said she had long wanted to be a police chief for a large university that serves  undergraduates and so the position at the U of I, while it came sooner than she expected, “was something that I could not pass up.” 

She said what’s appealing about campus policing is the opportunity to engage with the community via outreach efforts; because fewer emergency calls are made, officers have more time to spend proactively getting to know and protect the campus.  

Cary oversees a department that, as of last May, had 59 sworn officers, and most of whom — 39 men and 9 women — are white. She said they’re currently recruiting for several open positions and she hopes to fill them with “diverse candidates.” 

“It’s part of my vision to diversify our agency. And, you know, not to default on the past administration, but they did a poor job,” Cary said. “And we’re very fortunate here to have an intern program that’s charged by the university that helps us hire females and minorities. We have several females and minorities that are interested in joining the University of Illinois police department.” When we spoke last October, Cary said she was in the process of interviewing those individuals. 

As state certified officers, UIPD police have jurisdiction throughout the state of Illinois, Cary explained, but typically their scope is limited to all the property owned and operated by the U of I, as well as areas adjacent to campus. The department also frequently partners with Champaign and Urbana’s municipal departments; frequently members of both departments will arrive at the scene of a call that’s located near to campus. UIPD officers are also assigned to multiple FBI task forces, including the federal agency’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces and a drug-enforcement related task force. 

“Typically, it’s all about who’s where, and who’s closest. And if officers hear that call, which is maybe a block away from their assigned areas, they will go to… secure the scene to ensure the safety of those involved,” Cary said.

She said campus police are charged with protecting both the community and the assets of the university.

“There’s so much research that goes on here, and there’s, you know, valuable things that are contained within our multi-million dollar buildings,” she said. 

When asked why Black individuals appear to be overrepresented in the UIPD’s arrest data — particularly among those taken to jail by campus officers — given the makeup of the student body and surrounding community, Cary said university police do not engage in racial profiling. She said the reason why so many Black individuals are arrested cannot be explained by law enforcement actions alone, “but it goes into society and what we need to do to help those that can’t help themselves.”

Poverty, homelessness, mental health crises and food insecurities frequently intersect with law enforcement, Cary said. People revert to crime for a variety of reasons, and “we don’t dictate who commits crime… our job is to help prevent crime and help address it as it comes in. It doesn’t come with a color, it comes with an act.”

Cary also points to the fact that the department is doing better than its counterparts. A 2019 Illinois Department of Transportation analysis of traffic and pedestrian stops found that Black drivers are 1.5 times more likely than white drivers to be stopped by UIPD — compared to 4.8 and 3.5 times more likely to be stopped by Champaign and Urbana police, respectively. The statewide average is 2.7 times more likely. 

According to the study, a Black pedestrian is 4.4 times more likely to be stopped by UIPD than a white person — compared to 5.8 times and 11 times more likely to be stopped by Champaign and Urbana police, respectively. The statewide average is 21.6 times more likely.

‘They’re real police officers’

The first recorded instance of campus policing dates back to the mid 1890s, according to John J. Sloan, professor emeritus of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Sloan has studied campus cops for the last nearly quarter of a century. He said Yale University was the first institution of higher education to hire two off-duty municipal police officers to patrol the campus.

He divides the history of campus policing into three distinct eras, the first lasting through the 1950s, in which campus watchmen patrolled the grounds of their universities responding to a range of incidents — everything from burst pipes to criminal activity — as a hybrid maintenance employee and security guard with the ability to detain people.

“It really wasn’t until the latter part of the 60s in the early 70s that we began to see the emergence of formal policing agencies on college campuses,” Sloan said. He explained that the emergence of these formal agencies was tied to political and cultural unrest around civil rights, women’s rights and the Vietnam War. 

“And the protests that were occurring, oftentimes, resulted in damage to university property, resulted in people being injured,” Sloan said. At the time, he said, universities notified local law enforcement agencies, which would send officers to campuses. Confrontations between students and police ensued — including the 1970 Kent State shootings in which four unarmed students were killed and nine others wounded after being shot by members of the Ohio National Guard while peacefully protesting the Vietnam War, and the 1968 killings of three South Carolina State College students who were protesting segregation when they were shot by state highway patrolmen. 

Those incidences and others prompted university administrators to create their own specialized police forces that could address unrest on campus while also reporting to university officials, Sloan said. He said multiple states passed legislation allowing for the creation of these departments.

“They’re real police officers in the sense that they do academy training, they are sworn law enforcers, which means they have the power of arrest. They are also trained in the use of both lethal and non-lethal weapons,” Sloan said. He said campus police departments began to mirror their municipal counterparts.

“They copied, to a large degree, the organizational model of municipal police [and] when you look at the makeup of campus police officers, in these agencies, you are seeing disproportionately white males,” Sloan said.

Sloan said he’s also not surprised by the racial disparities represented in the UIPD arrest data, because campus police aren’t shielded from the problems that plague other types of policing. In theory, he said, a campus police agency designed to serve and protect is “a great idea.”

Sloan said he’s long told his college students that “we need to blow up all the police departments and start over again.” Not literally, he said, but the current structure of policing, one which prioritizes hierarchies and top-down communication — both on and off-campuses — contributes to a criminal justice system that has harmed communities of color for decades.

“We are talking about, to some extent, blowing it all up, and, you know, starting from scratch. I don’t know what the other option is if you’re getting to the point where students of color don’t want to come to my institution, because they’re afraid — not of college per se — they’re afraid of the cops that are going to hassle them, and so they choose to go someplace else.”

The solution to the problem, Sloan said, begins with diminishing the importance of rank within police organizations, and training that focuses on more de-escalation, cultural sensitivity and alternative forms of justice that don’t hinge on punitive measures like arrests and jail time. He acknowledged that these are enormous reforms that won’t happen overnight, but are possible with time and the willingness of the institutions.

“We’ve screwed it all up. We just have,” he said, referring to policing, including campus policing. “And so the question then becomes, alright, if we accept that we’ve screwed it all up, can we fix it? And I think the answer to that is yes.”

Lee Gaines is a reporter at Illinois Public Media.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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