University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students are calling on the institution to sever ties with the college town’s local police departments and dissolve the university’s own police force.
Following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the protests that followed, students at both the U of I’s Urbana and Chicago campuses are campaigning to defund university police forces, and invest that money into other services for students.
Students at UIUC sent an open letter — signed by hundreds so far — to U of I System President Timothy Killeen, among other university leaders, in June. The letter lists a number of demands, including cancelling all contracts with the Urbana and Champaign police departments, as well as the county sheriff department, for supplemental law enforcement support; banning joint patrol programs on campus; ending the agreement between the U of I system and the Police Training Institute; disarming, defunding and eventually disbanding the University of Illinois Police Department, and creating new structures to support community health and social well-being.
The letter also calls for the creation of a civilian police oversight commission that would be staffed by students, faculty and U of I workers, with the power to hire and fire the campus police superintendent, and investigate complaints of police misconduct. Additionally, it asks the university to create a Transformative Justice Center that would address conflict and harm on campus through “accountability, redress and healing” without relying on police services or punitive measures.
“Police in Champaign-Urbana have have killed people arbitrarily, mostly Black and brown people, brutalized people, and the UIPD plays a role in collaborating with them, and also what I call fortressing the university campus against the community, especially the Black and brown community, in the north end of Urbana-Champaign,” says Austin Hoffman, a U of I graduate student pushing the university to disarm and defund its policing services and contracts.
Hoffman says students want the university to take the money it spends on policing and put it into resources for students of color, including mental health services.
Sabrina Arte, an undergraduate at the U of I, says she’s witnessed issues with police on campus first-hand.
“Campus police over-policed the residence halls with a lot of minority students. I saw that they were often parked outside of the dorms at night, you know, ready to kind of question residents when they were coming in,” Arte says.
Arte, who works in student housing, says she’s also been told to call the UIPD when a student resident is having a mental health crisis.
“A Black freshman student was having a mental health episode in the residence hall that I worked in,” she says. “And some of the resident advisors, they immediately were like, ‘oh, you should call UIPD, campus police.’ And that really, really alarmed me. Because I feel, as a Black woman, the last thing I want to do is call the police on a Black man who’s having a mental health episode.”
Rubab Hyder, who graduated from the U of I this year, also worked in a residence hall. She says she also witnessed over-policing of Black students, and calls to police for mental health crises and substance use.
“So when we had students, you know, smoking marijuana, it was like the first thing you did was call the cops. And I just don’t think that’s something that’s, you know, helpful. That doesn’t really change anything for the students or materially benefit anyone,” Hyder says.
Hyder, Hoffman and Arte say they’ve all struggled to obtain mental health services on campus. Arte says she’s also referred students in crisis to the campus’ counseling center without much luck.
“And like having referred a student to the counseling center and hearing the student tell me, ‘yeah, I’ve been calling them like every other morning and I can’t get an appointment,’ is very discouraging because it’s like, OK, how much can I do for you when the university isn’t providing anything for you,” Arte says.
In February, a U of I spokesperson told Illinois Newsroom that the counseling center on campus employed 33 full-time counselors, and planned to hire two additional counselors for the upcoming academic year. With a total enrollment of nearly 52,000 for the 2019-20 school year, the current staffing levels equate to about one counselor for every 1,500 students.
Students supporting the divestment movement would like to see money spent on policing diverted to mental health resources, particularly for students who have experienced sexual assault. The letter also calls for the campus to hire more counselors of color.
“I feel as though if a student is sexually assaulted or reports that to a residential hall employee, we shouldn’t have to call the police. We should be able to call a professional counseling specialist that can come and talk to them as well,” Arte says.
U of I Chancellor Robert Jones responded to the letter via email. He wrote that the university had hired a new executive director of public safety; is requiring its officers to undergo de-escalation and use-of-force training; is forming a police liaison board made up of faculty, staff, students and community leaders; and adopting the Ten Shared Principles of the NAACP and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. principles.
Additionally, he wrote that the university is considering adding a social worker or mental health counselor to every police shift to manage difficult situations.
“I am shocked and very angry about the idea of adding social workers and mental health counselors to every police shift when… we can’t even get this at our own counseling center,” Hoffman said in response to Jones’ email.
Hoffman says their ultimate goal is the elimination of police on campus.
“We don’t believe they have any role in schools and the society we’re working towards,” he says.
He says there are viable alternatives to armed police officers when it comes to ensuring safety on and off-campus.
“Drunk people arguing or someone who needs a ride home, or if there’s somebody who falls and hurts themselves — we just don’t believe that the police need to be involved in these things and that we as students are smart enough and resourceful enough to resolve these things ourselves. We have the resources around us to do that.”
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