Broad conversations about policing have raised questions about the role of campus police officers who patrol the grounds of learning institutions. The Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt) and Design Board of Trustees will vote on whether or not to arm the campus police officers in February. Currently, MassArt is the only four year state college where campus police officers don’t have firearms.
In 2018, police have shot and killed 898 people nationwide. The discussion about police brutality is incomplete without taking note of the large racial disparity in who the police shoot: a study shows that police kill a disproportionate number of black people. Police officers in Boston reinforce this attitude, engaging in practices like discriminatory stop and frisk and a secret point system that affects black and brown youth.
Camila Bohan Insaurralde, a junior at MassArt, said that deliberation over the topic of arming campus police officers has been going on for years. “First the faculty pushed back against this in 2014 and then student groups pushed back against it in 2016 and we’re pushing back against it in 2018. It’s very clear the community does not want our officers to be armed,” Bohan Insaurralde said.
MassArt administration frames the issue as a campus safety concern. “We have been working on improving our campus safety over time and through many different measures. The next measure we’re considering is whether or not to arm the College’s trained police officers,” said Ellen Carr, executive director of marketing and communications at MassArt. “We have conducted extensive research and consulted national experts in college campus safety, and held multiple open forums and surveys to gather input from students, faculty and staff.”
However, Houten said that the MassArt community said that the MassArt administration has not been transparent about their motives or how they are proceeding with the research process leading up to the vote.
“They [MassArt administration] keep hiring outside firms to come to the school and conduct forums to get our input and get feedback from everybody. But everytime they do this, they always hold these forums during times the community can’t be there, like usually during class times,” Houten said. “They did conduct surveys but it turned out the consulting firm that actually conducted the survey ended up being biased towards arming officers. While the survey itself might not have been biased, the consulting firm told MassArt they recommend the school start a marketing campaign to strengthen the community relationship with police on campus.”
Houten said students have noticed an increase in the college’s social media posts about police.
“They keep saying they want to do more research, they don’t have enough information, but they’re clearly already acting on things through that marketing campaign or by holding meetings and rescheduling them,” said Houten.
In the MassArt Campus Safety Working Group report, the reasons for arming campus police officers that were cited cater to the police’s desires and not the students’ safety, Houten said. “ It’s based a lot on fear and it’s based on tailoring to the needs of the police officers [rather than] the community. When you look at that document and all the reasons they cite, every reason has the perspective of the police in it.”
Some of the reasons include difficulty in retaining campus police officers because they want firearms and don’t have them and money spent on training new campus police officers, only to have them resign because they lack firearms.
“None of the reasons are like, ‘MassArt students are endangered because there’s crime.’ None of that. It seems very clear to me that they’re tailoring to what cops need and want and what cops want is based on fear. It’s also based in racism,” Houten said.
Houten explained that the school administration evaluated the neighborhood MassArt is in, and took discomfort in the demographic makeup.
“They basically take the demographics of the neighborhood, which are based on race, based on class and they project what the crime data will be. That’s their basis for saying we need weapons,” Houten said. “If our campus police officers have weapons, it’s these people in our neighborhood who are going to be affected, the people that come to our campus that may not look like the majority of our campus which is a white student body, over 70 percent of our students are white. It’s clear who MassArt fears. It’s not an active shooter. It’s the neighborhood Roxbury and the people who will be most affected by this.”
Bohan Insaurralde said that the implications of arming campus police officers are ultimately detrimental to people of color. “We’ve seen officers respond aggressively to students with mental breakdowns, to diverse students, to black and brown students. We believe that if they were armed, these situations would only escalate,” Bohan Insaurralde said. Bohan Insaurralde added that MassArt is within walking distance of a community center, middle school, and high school, making the arming of campus police all the more dangerous. “These students come on our public campus spaces like our cafeteria and our events and they have stories of being profiled and harassed for being kids, for just being teenagers or middle schoolers.”
The MassArt Board of Trustees was supposed to vote on the issue on Nov. 27, but with the vote pushed back to January, Bohan Insaurralde said that organizers and activists are going to continue pressuring the school. “There’s a lot of keeping close tabs on MassArt and making sure they’re transparent and then organizing another action in February.
“For the safety of all, these officers should not be armed.”