Editorial: TUPD incident of racial bias illustrates need for systemic change

Content warning: This article references instances of police brutality against historically marginalized communities.

On Sept. 1, three women of color were questioned by Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) after attempting to put a mask on the Jumbo statue to promote JumboVote and [email protected] Several men, at least some of whom were white, were asked to assist with the activity. A community member who saw the scene proceeded to call TUPD, mistakenly thinking that the women were painting the statue. Despite being university sanctioned and an obviously nonviolent initiative, four officers with two cruisers and a motorcycle responded to the scene and were said to have subjected the three women to more intense and lengthy questioning than the other men involved. In an email to the community, Executive Vice President Michael Howard and Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Rob Mack apologized to the women involved and announced the commission of an independent investigation.

Though the administrative response was swift and commendable, we must not forget that Tufts and its police force exist in a larger system in which police officers extrajudicially murder people, particularly Black people and other people of color, on a regular basis. These same influences of systemic racism are present on Tufts’ campus. As reported in the Tufts Observer, TUPD itself has disproportionately policed students of color on Tufts’ campus. In the last year and the years prior, white supremacy, discrimination and incidents of hate have targeted people of color. 

Time and time and time again, Tufts has committed to combating hate on its campus and being actively anti-racist. However, the continued occurrence of racist incidents on our campus demonstrates the pervasiveness of bias within Tufts’ institutions despite these actions to prevent them. Empty promises and actionless apologies will not disrupt racist systems — only concrete action and institutional reform will.

In this incident, the deployment of four officers and extensive, inequitable questioning of the women involved marks a disproportionate response by TUPD, similar to those by police departments all over the United States. Precedent events in which police have responded disproportionately have led to death and trauma, including the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and countless other unarmed Black individuals. The university’s response neglected that this history of escalation could have been a significant source of anxiety and trauma for the women involved in this incident. Furthermore, this incident is a clear indication that TUPD protocol does not adequately account for this reality in its practices or follow through with its guiding principle of “procedural justice” in interacting with the community it serves.

This incident also highlights national concerns regarding police suppression of nonviolent protest. The harmless act of putting a mask on the Jumbo statue was an initiative by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and an effort to promote community health and civic action. Regardless of whether these actions are sanctioned by the university, activism remains central to both the health of our community and democracy. We must question the ways in which police intervention hinders or suppresses nonviolent activism on our campus.

Howard and Mack have set a necessary precedent in launching an impartial investigation into this incident. However, in order to engender sustainable change and deliver justice to those affected by systemic racism on our campus, this investigation must be action-oriented. We must start with a community-wide reevaluation of the role that TUPD has on our campus. Tufts must defund TUPD and significantly downsize police operations. Furthermore, TUPD needs to reform its protocol for responding to nonviolent incidents and prioritize deescalation strategies that do not subject individuals to unfair questioning techniques. 

Tufts should also use the results of the investigation to place this incident in the broader context of racism on our campus. In addition to investigating the incident itself, Tufts should double down on it’s current efforts to evaluate how police are used on our campus and whether they police certain groups more than others. University administrators can do this by making a safe and accessible space for individuals to tell them about their encounters with police. 

Eradicating systemic racism on our campus requires systemic change. Tufts University police officers must be held accountable for this incident of racial bias and pressured to reform their policies and practices in accordance with the principles of justice, equity and dignity.

Clarification (10/1/2020): This article has been updated to include information about Tufts’ campus policing workstream.