On Feb. 17, University President Anthony Monaco released a statement to the Tufts community via email announcing recommendations made by the “Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution” initiative. The report included five separate workstreams concentrating on topics ranging from artwork to curriculums; one workstream that warrants particular scrutiny, however, is the Campus Safety and Policing workstream. The report comes after a year whose events have illustrated the danger policing can pose to marginalized communities, and it matters that Tufts revisit how it approaches policing if the university wants to make its campus one that is safe and truly anti-racist.
Anti-Black racism has infected policing for as long as policing has existed in America; the past year, however, has witnessed many predominately white institutions seriously recognizing this fact for the first time, inspired by events across the country after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Local incidents, too, illustrate how American policing fails people of color: This fall, Tufts University Police Department sent multiple cruisers to question three women of color who were putting a mask on the Jumbo statue to promote JumboVote and [email protected], allegedly questioning them longer than men who were also present, some of whom were white. Years earlier, the Tufts Observer collected testimonies of students of color explaining how interactions with TUPD made them feel unsafe and unwelcome on campus.
All of this history means that Tufts’ decision to interrogate the way it does policing was a welcome one — and many of the eventual recommendations in the Campus Safety and Policing workstream are welcome too. The recommendations for updating TUPD’s mission, delegating more tasks to mental health professionals and establishing an Independent Advisory Board are all positive developments. However, the report fails to offer guidance on the status of arming TUPD officers, only recommending the creation of a new working group to revisit the issue. Pushing this off to yet another working group represents an excessive delay, as every day that goes by with armed officers present on campus brings risk of violent escalation in TUPD-student interactions. In light of this, it matters that Tufts take swifter action to create a gun-free campus, and, hopefully, engage in a broader reevaluation of what service TUPD should actually provide.
As it stands, TUPD’s responsibilities go beyond just emergency response duties, extending to routine services on campus such as well-being checks, transports and lockouts. Many of these tasks, however, could be better addressed by other professionals on campus. For example, the Tufts Student Life website lists TUPD among resources to call when a student is facing a mental health crisis — a system which, in certain situations, may cause more harm than help. Black students and members of other minority groups may feel particularly uncomfortable with police officers responding to mental health situations, given the racism that has permeated policing throughout history. The same can be said for instances in which TUPD responds to lockouts and transportation requests — the presence of police officers is simply not necessary.
The Campus Safety and Policing workstream includes a recommendation that TUPD move away from being the primary provider of these services, which is a welcome suggestion. But on matters of public safety, it is important that the university’s measures — and funding decisions — show that the university is committed to action, and not just words. The university must not only divert these responsibilities to entities like Counseling and Mental Health Services, it must also redirect existing TUPD funding to them so that they can be staffed at the level that is necessary to support students. Some of this funding could also go to expanding the non-police staff of the Department of Public Safety. Members of this staff could assume TUPD’s existing responsibilities for lockouts and transport.
These structural changes to the university bureaucracy may take time to develop and implement. But one area where Tufts can take immediate action in fulfilling its dual commitment to effective public safety and anti-racism — and where the workstream failed to offer a decisive solution — is in the disarmament of TUPD. Since 2008, TUPD officers have been trained to use semi-automatic patrol rifles, in addition to carrying handguns. In the day-to-day operations of the university, however, the presence of guns is not only inappropriate, but something that could risk heightening tension in student-officer interactions. Given the history of policing in America at large and of TUPD in particular, there is reason to suspect that this tension could be particularly dangerous for students of color. The university could effect immediate change by creating a gun-free campus, which makes it particularly disheartening that the workstream report merely pushed it off for another working group to look into.
One group that has offered leadership on this issue is the Tufts Action Group, a coalition of Tufts faculty and staff members formed in response to the murder of George Floyd by police this summer, which called for the immediate and permanent disarmament of TUPD on June 18. Tufts Action Group operates the “Another Tufts is Possible” initiative, which has also shown support for defunding TUPD and reallocating resources to other community safety measures. Going forward, it is not only important that Tufts disarm TUPD and fund alternative sources of safety and justice, but also that Tufts work with stakeholders like Tufts Action Group as it does so. The creation of more committees to explore truths that the Tufts community is already aware of is duplicitous and unnecessary; real action might come about sooner if Tufts started listening to community groups that have been leading the calls for change.
Hopefully, the university’s Campus Safety and Policing workstream will initiate a cascade of change, a series of reforms to transform the meaning of justice and safety. But this will require the university to actively seek input from community stakeholders such as Tufts Action Group and to actively offer transparent accounts of its progress, both clarifying administrative developments and offering data on TUPD’s day-to-day activities. Only through community input will the university be able to craft policies that reflect the real needs of our community and respect the physical and mental health of the student body.