Reimagining Public Safety at Princeton: Reform is insufficient
Campus security should not mirror, let alone multiply, policing practices and forces.| June 11, 2020
The public lynching of George Floyd by a police officer last month, after the murder of Breonna Taylor by current police officers and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by a former police officer, has catalyzed protests across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people, including Princeton students, faculty, and alumni, have called for a radical transformation of policing and the criminal justice system.
Professor of African American Studies Eddie Glaude GS ’97 recently said, “We have the responsibility to imagine America anew.” This responsibility to reimagine extends to our own campus, and the Board believes that the flaws inherent in this country’s policing system demonstrate the need to sever ties with the Princeton Police Department and fundamentally reconfigure Public Safety’s operation on campus.
It is difficult to illustrate the levels of horrific violence that police have inflicted upon protesters, journalists, and the public; there is a never-ending stream of examples we could highlight. These egregious actions include using tear gas, a chemical weapon prohibited in war, to painfully disperse crowds; trapping peaceful protestors only to charge at them with batons; ripping masks off the faces of peaceful protestors to sear their eyes with pepper spray; arresting journalists; and firing rubber bullets that have sent men, women, youth, and even grandparents into the hospital. These and other instances of violence against protestors have led some to rightfully describe the situation as a national police riot.
It is not enough to simply condemn specific instances of violence, or to merely react with sympathy for the victims of police brutality. It is too little to point to the most horrifying and most publicized of incidents without addressing the systems and histories that lead to brutality, especially because most police violence is never captured on camera.
The Board acknowledges the statement from President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 at Commencement condemning George Floyd’s murder and highlighting the need to “strive relentlessly for equality and justice,” but we firmly believe that the University must now act upon these words. Until Princeton fulfills this moral obligation, Eisgruber’s message will remain hollow.
To that end, the University must undergo a radical transformation in how public safety operates, including prioritizing the use of social workers and mental health professionals to deal with issues that the University so often seeks to ameliorate with the brute force of policing. This would, among other things, demand that the University cease its current relationships with local police departments, and render obsolete the use of sworn police officers by the Department of Public Safety (DPS).
Currently DPS shares information and trains with the Princeton Police Department (PPD), the West Windsor Police Department, and the Plainsboro Police Department. While these local police forces are present at some University events, campus is regularly patrolled by sworn police officers employed by the University. These officers have “all the powers of policemen,” including arrest — and all the baggage, too.
The town of Princeton is by no means immune to systemic racism, despite claims to be on the “cutting edge of reform for years.” Despite Black people only comprising 5 percent of the town’s population, in 2018, 15.4 percent of the motorists pulled over by PPD were Black, and around half of the use of force incidents in 2018 involved Black people.
Thus, the Board finds collaboration between the University and PPD deeply concerning, especially as Paul Ominsky, Assistant Vice President for Public Safety, has described DPS and PPD as “force multipliers for each other.”
Campus security should not mirror, let alone multiply, policing practices and forces.
As Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has so powerfully argued, policing in this country has been used to confront social and economic issues with tanks and machine guns to the devastating effect of widespread violence against Black communities across the country.
All too often, the University operates with this same flawed logic by deploying DPS officers to try to resolve campus issues through a punitive, brute-force approach.
In a 2008 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly, then-Public Safety Director Steven Healy described how Public Safety “stepped up” its patrols in order to address drug use on campus. But rather than address the problem as a health issue, Public Safety officers increased patrolling and judicial referrals for what Healy said mostly involved “trace amounts” of marijuana. More recently, the University deployed Public Safety officers to arrest and expel students from campus in order to address the public health issue of COVID-19 on campus, as students gathered in large groups.
Rather than these punitive tactics, the University should be using Residential College Advisers, other peer leaders, Directors of Student Life, social workers, and counseling services to tackle both the problems and their underlying causes. The expansion of these services would rightfully eliminate the need for sworn officers in University employment.
In light of the fundamental destructiveness of policing tactics in this country, the University should expand social and mental health services and end its employment of sworn police officers, discontinue training programs with police, and cut all other ties with police departments, ceasing the use of Public Safety as a punitive tool to tackle campus issues best resolved through social work and supportive departments on campus.
Ending this collaboration would also entail the end of qualified immunity. While the Board appreciates DPS’s decision to stop pursuing the expansion of qualified immunity for P-Safe officers in their interactions with people unaffiliated with the University community, the University must take the next step to repudiate this legal doctrine as a whole, and cease providing immunity to P-Safe officers in their interactions with University students, faculty, and staff.
This Board applauds the words of Nathan Poland ’20, who told The Appeal that the University’s stance on qualified immunity reveals its focus on “mitigating consequences for the officers rather than trying to mitigate civil rights violations in the first place.” The continuation of the policy allows officers to act above the law and commit violence with impunity. There is no rationale for granting this privilege to any officer, let alone DPS. The administration would benefit from enacting the insights of its own faculty members on systematic racism and policing, rather than merely celebrating their work.
Ultimately, the elimination of ties with the PPD must be part of a larger project of dismantling and reimagining campus safety as we know it. The Board calls on Public Safety to work with the campus community — including students, staff, graduate workers, faculty, and local residents and activists — to reimagine the role that an equitable and just public safety staff can play on campus to ensure that everyone feels safe and protected, both by and from public safety officers.
144TH EDITORIAL BOARD
Zachariah W. Sippy ’22
Benjamin Ball ’21
Shannon E. Chaffers ’22
Rachel Kennedy ’21
Kate Lee ’23
Madeleine Marr ’21
Jonathan A. Ort ’21
Elizabeth Parker ’21
Emma Treadway ’22
Ivy Truong ’21
Cy Watsky ’21