This is the second installment of a two-part digital series. You can read the first story here.
URBANA – On a Friday night in late October of last year, University of Illinois police Officer Kyle Krickovich began his shift at 10 p.m. — it would last until 8 a.m. — patrolling the east side of the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. During the four hours I spent with him, he spotted two students whose car ran out of gas, and helped them push the vehicle into a parking spot. He offered to give them a ride to the gas station, but they declined. Later, he extinguished a large dumpster fire roaring next to an apartment building in Urbana. Around 2 a.m., he pulled over a group of teenagers whose car drove straight through a turn only lane. He wrote the driver a ticket because it was the second time he had been cited for the same offense.
Listen to Illinois Newsroom Reporter Lee Gaines interview experts in alternative forms of justice:
It was an admittedly slow night, Krickovich said. But not all nights are like this. Krickovich recounts a situation in which he was called to assist a victim in a shooting incident near campus.
“I put a tourniquet on his leg to, you know, hopefully stop the bleeding and, you know, kind of keep him with us until the ambulance or EMF personnel could get there to take over and get him to the hospital. So that’s one of the ones that’s like, definitely your heart’s pumping and racing,” he said.
Krickovich, who is in his mid 20s, has been a UIPD officer for about three years. But some students and community activists at the U of I campus want his job eliminated, and the roughly $8.2 million the department receives annually diverted to other services for students, like mental healthcare and alternative forms of justice. It’s a part of a growing national movement to defund campus cops, which has taken root at other institutions in Illinois, Connecticut, California and Michigan. At the U of I, students say campus cops over police students of color, and they don’t feel protected or served by the agency. Data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act Request shows that more than half of the people physically taken to jail by UIPD officers between 2016 and 2019 were Black.
Krickovich said this kind of activism isn’t new, but he said a lot more people became involved after George Floyd was killed. Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis last May, sparking global protests — and invigorating a police abolition movement on university campuses. When I interviewed him last fall, Krickovich said he hadn’t seen the entire cell phone video that a bystander took of a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he died. But he said the incident changed the way he thought about his job.
“I’m just constantly reminding myself that, you know, I got hired, essentially, to work for the people of this community. You know, they’ve entrusted me with a very interesting and powerful position,” he said.
Krickovich received his basic training for the job at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute (PTI), which serves not only U of I police officers but also recruits from law enforcement agencies around the state. The institute claims to be unique among police training organizations nationwide.
“We consider ourselves very progressive,” said Michael Schlosser, the director of PTI and a former police officer himself. “We’ve created a lot of new courses and done things that I think have always been kind of in line with police reform.”
Once hired, police recruits — including university police officers — are mandated to complete 14 weeks of training and pass a final exam at one of seven police academies in Illinois. That training includes a 650-hour curriculum — created by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board — with an extensive list of subjects, ranging from community and social media relations to crisis intervention, investigations, defensive tactics, officer wellness and 40 hours of scenario based training that includes role playing police-related incidents, among many other topics. And the training doesn’t stop there. Once they’ve completed basic training, recruits are sent back to their departments where on-the-job training continues, which includes a probation period typically lasting between a year and a half to two years, Schlosser said.
He said the curriculum was updated several years ago to include mandated de-escalation training, which most academies already teach in some form. But Schlosser said there’s now an increased focus on training for mental health crises, implicit bias awareness and cultural competency.
He said most police officers are good people who also want reform. Schlosser said most were also infuriated by the killing of George Floyd.
“I can’t think of any officers in this area that would not have only said, ‘get off their neck,’ they would have shoved him off his neck, because that benefits both the arrestee and the officers. It’s just the right thing to do,” he said.
The reforms required are systemic, and run the gamut from being able to fire an officer who has committed harm without intervention from police unions, making sure they’re unable to get a job as a cop elsewhere, to additional training, Schlosser said.
“I think it’s obvious in our society, in America, that we have to own and be aware that every person has certain assumptions, biases and stereotypes,” he said. Tackling those implicit biases involves getting to know people from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds when you’re not pulling them over or arresting them. And, of course, through training.
But Schlosser draws the line at abolition. He said he can “completely understand and respect people’s views” that police should be eliminated, or disarmed or prevented from responding to certain types of incidents. But he said without police, crime will increase.
“I just don’t understand how you can’t have police. But we can do a better job of what that looks like,” Schlosser said.
‘Work with us’
UIPD Officer Krickovich said he realized his decision to become a university police officer was the right one while a recruit in training at PTI. Krickovich is in his mid 20s. He grew up in the area going to U of I sporting events with family, and he attended Parkland Community College in Champaign. Krickovich said he completed his bachelors degree at the U of I while working as a civilian for the campus police department part-time. After he decided engineering wasn’t the career for him, he said he was inspired by his uncle, a retired deputy with the county sheriff’s department, to become a police officer.
While at PTI, Krickovich met other recruits from departments across the state, and “it solidified my choice in working for the university, you know, we do things different than maybe a city or like a county would.”
Like Schlosser, Krickovich said change is necessary. While he can’t support abolition, Krickovich said police, including campus officers, are asked to address too many things, from homelessness to mental health.
“You know, we do so much. I don’t think the right message is defund us, it’s work with us. Let’s find other money to enact that change.”
Krickovich said if police weren’t responsible for addressing so many of society’s and the university community’s problems, then, maybe, you won’t need as many officers like him.
“No one gets into this job to not help people or to hurt people, you know, that’s not what any of us are here to do,” Krickovich said. “We want to see everyone succeed. And I was a student here, I know what it was like to be a student here. I’ve lived in the community for such a long time. This is home.”
As the movement to abolish campus police gains momentum at campuses across the country, Dylan Rodríguez hopes it doesn’t get watered down. Rodríguez is a professor of media and culture studies at the University of California Riverside, and he’s also a member of a faculty-led group advocating for the elimination of university police across all UC campuses by this coming fall.
“What is interesting to me about the moment we’re in now is how much traction the term and concept, abolition, actually has with people,” he said.
Rodríguez said he’s been an abolitionist for the last 25 years. He traces the roots of his activism back to the late 1990s, when he met the author and civil rights activist Angela Davis, who served as one of his graduate school instructors at UC Berkeley. He said she became a mentor. Rodríguez said he began to understand the prison industrial complex as an instrument of genocide against Black and brown communities.
“They talked about it in terms of how that structure, how the prison industrial complex and policing, were eliminating entire sectors of their communities. They were destroying families. They were inhibiting, if not exterminating, the capacity to socially reproduce,” he recounts.
At its core, Rodríguez said policing is “foundationally violent,” “foundationally anti-Black,” “foundationally colonialist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic.”
“In order to address that foundational violence, what you actually need to do is destroy the existing system and recreate the world… so it’s a creative project,” he explains.
Collective safety and justice through the lens of abolition looks like a world in which historically marginalized and vulnerable people — i.e. Black, indigenous and transgender individuals — are prioritized rather than victimized, Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez said college campuses are an excellent place to experiment with new and inclusive forms of justice that attempt to address the conditions that result in crime before it actually happens.
“We don’t want better reactions to this stuff [from police], we actually want a form of security and community and accountability that addresses the problems at their root, at their cause… we’re talking about institutionalizing that kind of structure”
Targeting this kind of activism at the elimination of campus policing is strategically important in the mission to abolish police and the prison industrial complex altogether; colleges and universities are places where the creative side of abolitionist work could actually take root sooner rather than later, Rodríguez said.
“There’s an opportunity at these sites to do that work, and to do it in the absence of an armed police force. I think that’s at the best of it. That’s what I see happening right now,” Rodriguez said.
I struggled to find any colleges or universities that had actually defunded and disbanded their police forces. However, I found at least two campuses that have changed the way they approach crime and punishment.
The University of Colorado Boulder has used restorative justice since about 2000, although the program has grown significantly in size and scope in recent years. Last year, more than 1,000 students at the campus went through some form of a restorative justice process, according to Tyler Keyworth, the campus’ director for restorative justice and conflict resolution. Keyworth said the program tackles a range of offenses — everything from the use of a fake ID to felony burglary and assault cases. The campus partners with the municipal court system and campus police department, which refer certain cases to the program, along with the campus’ office of student conduct and conflict resolution.
Keyworth defines restorative justice as “a process that engages the people most directly involved with an incident that caused harm, and helping them to talk through what happened in the incident, what harm or impact was caused, and what they can do to make things right to the greatest extent possible.”
In order to participate, students have to own up to and take responsibility for whatever it is they’ve been accused of, Keyworth said. If someone was impacted by the students’ actions, they’re invited to participate in the process. Otherwise, the process is staffed by volunteers, who could be students, staff, alumni or residents of Boulder, Keyworth explains.
“And then in that process, people are addressing three main things: what happened, what harm or impact was caused, and what can be done to make things right,” he said.
Restorative justice is not a replacement for campus police, said Devin Cramer, assistant dean of students at CU Boulder. But the concept has changed the way the community addresses harm for the better, he said.
“We have the police, we have the university, we have the city attorney’s office and the municipal courts all bought into this concept of repairing harm” as opposed to punitive measures like locking people up or excluding them from educational settings. “And I think that changes the mindset of everyone who’s working in the system,” Cramer said.
He said it’s not a cure-all for the mistrust that may exist between students and their respective campuses, but it’s proved successful at CU Boulder, and something he’d like to see expanded to other institutions.
“I think that the more people we can get into a mindset of harm repair instead of punishment, I hope that that would result in systems, you know, improving.”
Scholars and activists say a similar but different type of work is needed to fix systemic problems. It’s called transformative justice, and students at U of I calling for the abolishment of campus police want to establish the practice on their campus.
Dara Kwayera Imani Bayer is the transformative justice program coordinator at Brown University.
“This particular position doesn’t exist really anywhere else. It was created by student organizing…the position is very new, even in concept,” she said.
Transformative justice is defined by Bayer as a set of practices and principles created by communities that have been impacted by state-sanctioned violence, like LGBTQ, disabled, migrant, indigenous, Black and sex worker communities, as a means to address violence and create positive change in society without perpetuating violence. Transformative justice as a framework also recognizes that institutions, including police, have themselves caused harm, she explains.
Bayer said the program at Brown — which began less than 2 years ago — includes training a small cohort of students to practice transformative justice in their own communities. It also addresses interpersonal harm on campus through community accountability processes.
“It’s really about not just addressing an interpersonal dynamic around harm, but seeing how that’s connected to the conditions and structures and violence that may have facilitated harm,” Bayer said. She said the practice allows communities to solve problems on their terms in ways that aren’t punitive but constructive.
Bayer acknowledges that transformative justice typically takes place outside the confines of an institution, and it’s tricky to practice it within the context of a university. But she said it’s possible, though it requires what she calls “radical imagination.”
“Because we’ve been told over and over again in our schooling, and just in our dominant society, that this is the way things have to be or this is the only way to address harm or to intervene or keep people safe, quote unquote — and obviously that’s not the case. We know these systems don’t do that.”
Leojae Bleu Steward, a student at the U of I advocating for abolition, said it will take enormous creativity to enact change on this campus.
“I mean, the society that we’re hoping for is one that we haven’t seen before. So that radical imagination is definitely going to have to come into play when we think of ways that we can include everyone,” he said.
UIPD Police Chief Alice Cary said she’s open to both approaches — particularly the restorative justice model implemented at CU Boulder.
“Traditional law enforcement is lagging, and we need something like this that’s innovative, and it gives alternatives to offenders. And I think it’d be a great idea and a great program to implement here,” she said.
Cary said she’s also committed to having “hard conversation and transparent conversation” with students, even those who don’t think her job should exist on campus. She said they’ve created an outreach program that Cary said is “forging those relationships, it’s providing resources, it’s, you know, giving presentations and giving the tools that individuals need to protect themselves.” Cary said the department is also reevaluating its policies with the help of an advisory committee made up of more than 40 people from the campus community.
In the meantime, Steward and his friend and fellow U of I senior, Latrel Crawford, say they haven’t changed their minds; they still want campus police abolished.
“Policing in itself is rooted in a system of white supremacy,” Crawford said. “As an African American man who is 21, a law abiding citizen and taxpayer of this nation, in order for me to feel safe and most comfortable, I don’t want them around. Period.”
Both Steward and Crawford are realists; they know the U of I is years away — perhaps even decades — from abolishing its police force, and they know defunding the cops won’t solve all society’s ills.
“However,” Steward said. “We do think that that is an important step towards making this society one for everyone like it’s supposed to be.”
Lee Gaines is a reporter at Illinois Public Media.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeVGaines