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Reform or Perform: Evaluating Tufts’ progress on transforming TUPD

Reform or Perform: Evaluating Tufts’ progress on transforming TUPD

In June 2020, over 2,000 students, faculty, staff, and alumni signed the Tufts for Black Lives petition that called upon the Tufts University administration to disarm and defund the Tufts University Police Department. In Fall 2020, students voted overwhelmingly in favor of ending TUPD’s participation in military training trips abroad. In light of national scrutiny on policing, Tufts has launched several new initiatives to measure campus sentiment and create a path forward for TUPD. After a year of these efforts by Tufts and a set of recommendations resulting from the Campus Safety and Policing Workstream, the Tufts community is re-evaluating whether these efforts are actually making progress in transforming TUPD and if they should spend energy engaging with them.

As announced in a statement by Tufts President Tony Monaco in July 2020, five workstreams were created as a part of the “Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution strategic initiative,” one of which was the Campus Safety and Policing Workstream. This workstream was created to “evaluate the current campus safety and policing model and recommend changes, identify immediate- and long-term objectives, and develop a framework to remain responsive to our community needs.” The workstream began meeting in September 2020 and concluded in February 2020. The Working Group on TUPD Arming (WGTA) was then established following the original workstream’s report. Both the workstream and the working group have established forums, surveys, and focus groups throughout the last year to gather community input on campus policing. Chief Diversity Officer Rob Mack and Associate Provost and Executive Vice President Mike Howard led the group, which brought in faculty, staff, and students from every campus and met twice a week. 

Lidya Woldeyesus, a senior and one of the two undergraduate students in the workstream, was originally excited to be recruited and felt it was a step in the right direction. However, “It very much became clear that many members of the committee didn’t know what they were doing; [the workstream] didn’t have a clear process or set agenda,” Woldeyesus said. “The [co-chairs] were charged with something that they did not understand the weight of [or] the responsibility [of] at all.” Woldeyesus felt that she was one of the few members of the group who was prepared to do the work needed. 

She was dubious about Tufts’ intentions to truly consider any reform to policing or policing alternatives; instead, the initiatives appeared performative. Woldeyesus said it became clear to her that “President Monaco, the trustees, and the co-chairs wanted a certain outcome, which was… recommendations out by the end of the semester.” She believed this compromised the process. “There wasn’t real intentionality behind doing this right. Many of us constantly asked if we could have more time because we [didn’t] want to put out recommendations like the ones that [eventually] came out.”

Woldeyesus also expressed her concern about the lack of critical conversation on policing in the working group sessions before the release of the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing’s recommendations. “It was clear that the majority of the people on this committee had not thought about policing in a different light—either policing in a different way, or police not existing, period,” Woldeyesus said. She advocated for the committee to have conversations around abolition and transformative justice before writing recommendations. These conversations fell on Woldeyesus herself, alongside other members of the committee: the Director of the LGBT and Women’s Center and member of the Tufts Action Group Steering Committee Hope Freeman and former Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Nandi Bynoe. The three of them were instructed to give presentations on the topic to educate other committee members on abolition and the history of policing at Tufts. On top of her schoolwork, Woldeyesus said these presentations felt like unpaid labor. Professor of sociology Daanika Gordon, who focuses on municipal policing and racial segregation, presented as well, providing 24 suggested readings ranging from the historical context of policing to campus policing, to community-based responses and mental health crises. None of these more radical readings were assigned to the group following her presentation. 

All of these instances led Woldeyesus to believe that her participation in the group was for show, so that the administration appeared to have the stamp of students’ approval. She said, “I was clearly being used… I felt like what I did for the committee was not taken seriously, it was kind of like a checkbox.” Several committee members, Woldeyesus said, seemed to be there just because it was a requirement of their job, not because of sincere interest in the reform efforts. Mack and Howard did not respond to questions about how workstream members were chosen.

Tufts’ initiatives have also received criticism from students who were not in the working group. Senior Noah Mills expanded on Woldeyesus’ sentiments. “These working groups are not an effective vehicle for change. They’re in fact designed to take student, faculty, and community energy and literally throw it in the trash… they are designed to obstruct and pretend to listen and neutralize your anger and your energy,” Mills said. Tufts Community Union President Amma Agyei felt similarly, stating that these workstreams and other initiatives by Tufts are attempts to “exhaust student time and exhaust student effort” until they graduate.

Furthermore, Woldeyesus said that when she tried to draw attention to the anti-police militarization referendum and Students for Justice in Palestine’s Deadly Exchange campaign to end Tufts police training trips with Israel Defense Forces in meetings, Mack and Howard would attempt to quickly move on and postpone the conversation to another time. The workstream eventually released a report of their findings in February 2021, the product of five months of meetings. There was no mention of SJP’s campaign, and the Tufts for Black Lives petition was only mentioned in the appendix of the recommendations alongside several other petitions and demands. Speaking to the recommendations that came out of the group, Woldeyesus said, “Now I have my name on something that I’m not proud of.”

One key recommendation from the workstream’s report was a deeper review of the issue of arming. As a result, the WGTA was established, seeking to determine if Tufts’ current model of armed police officers is the best choice for ensuring the safety and well-being of all Tufts community members. Howard was appointed as chair of the WGTA. He noted in an email that membership in this specific group is “voluntary,” and members represent all campuses and include students, faculty, and staff. He added that “[they are] fortunate to have a thoughtful, committed group.” Neither Woldeyesus or Jaime Givens, the two undergraduate students recruited to the first workstream, chose to join the WGTA.

According to Bridget Dick, a sophomore and member of SJP, the WGTA is a step backward from the workstream. “It feels like a way to divert attention from the more general sort of militarization and increased proliferation of TUPD… by focusing on just one small issue… I think we need to think more about all of the ways in which the institution exists.” This sentiment is not only shared amongst students, but faculty members as well. Tufts Action Group is a grassroots organization of close to 100 faculty and staff behind the Tufts for Black Lives Petition. In an interview with the Tufts Daily, Keith Maddox, a psychology professor and member of TAG said, “From the basis of [Tufts Action Group’s] demands it’s pretty clear that the idea of… further study isn’t necessary. It is a little disappointing from a personal standpoint that it’s going to take another 12 months, and that’s just to decide whether to [disarm the TUPD] or not.” Though a few members of TAG were part of the workstream, when TAG was asked to participate in a focus group for the last workstream to inform the committee’s decisions, they declined.

Similar to the original workstream, Howard said the WGTA is also conducting focus groups “with a variety of organizations and affinity groups across the university.” However, they have not reached out to SJP, the only student group actively leading a policing related campaign. When asked why not, Howard responded, “It’s not possible for us to meet with every group.” 

On September 9, 2021, the second day of the fall semester, the WGTA released a campus-wide survey asking for students’ and faculty’s thoughts on assessing the arming status of TUPD. The survey included a question that allowed people to state their preferred responders in a variety of scenarios, including building checks, noise complaints, trespassing, and physical assault. The options respondents could choose for each scenario were: “Armed TUPD,” “Unarmed TUPD,” “Campus Security Officers,” “Local, County, or State Law Enforcement” and “Mental health professionals.” In an op-ed in the Tufts Daily, Mills questioned the limitations of the survey selection. “Acting as if these five groups (three of which are sworn police officers) are the only options for response to these situations simply ignores how things currently work at Tufts,” Mills wrote. 

Another flaw of the survey that Mills noted was that respondents could only select one emergency responder for each scenario. Though a lot of crises can be rooted in mental health, he emphasized that he wouldn’t “send a therapist alone to deal with a potentially dangerous situation.” The survey also failed to ask students’ sexuality, an identity that Mills believes shapes his and others’ interactions with the police. 

Mills proposed that a potential reason that the survey was not, in his opinion, accurately framed, was because it was made by a private company, Margolis Healy, a Vermont-based campus safety and security services firm. “All that [Margolis Healy] does is help institutions make sure that what they’re doing with regards to security is legal and follows all the laws… how much is Tufts paying this company to make this survey and what are the motivations of the people making this survey?” Mills said. Margolis Healy seems to be a major firm for contracting out policing research, and has produced reports for Brandeis University, Suffolk University, and Portland State University.

According to Howard, “more than 3,000 individuals have completed the survey.” However, some students did not see the value in it. Sam Thomas, a first-year, said,  “I didn’t fill it out because I didn’t like the questions, there were no good answers.” Agyei questioned the purpose of the survey, emphasizing that “[students] don’t have to fill out a survey for [Tufts] to know that a bunch of people on campus don’t want armed police. [Administration] already knew that.” 

The survey also questions the relationship between TUPD and Somerville Police Department, asking students whether they would be comfortable with Medford and Somerville police coming on campus to respond to life-threatening situations on campus if TUPD was disarmed. Willie Burnley Jr., Somerville City Councillor Candidate and founder of Defund Somerville PD noted  “[TUPD] interacts and moves throughout the Somerville community… the idea that Somerville PD is not on Tufts campus is just like—I don’t know where that idea could come from.” This question relies on the assumption that Tufts police are somehow different from Medford and Somerville police. However, students do not see that as accurate. “Tufts is making a concerted effort to distinguish Tufts police from national police from municipal police forces, and are doing so by creating a persona for TUPD officers so that they are perceived as warm and loving and kind and approachable when in fact their training is the same training as Massachusetts police officers,” Woldeyesus said. “Any TUPD officer could work in Medford if they wanted to—many of them have.” 

TUPD is an accredited police force by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission, who boasts that their accreditation is an “effective risk management tools for preventing and reducing loss in professional liability claims.” Mills sees this accreditation as a process to shield TUPD from accountability. “We pay a couple thousand dollars to have that accreditation… because it protects [Tufts] from liability,” Mills said. “If police do something wrong,” said Mills, referencing the Jumbo statue mask incident, “[Tufts] can be like ‘This is an accredited policy… so we did everything right. This is what any other police officer would do.” 

Another way police departments deflect responsibility is with intentional appointments of Black and brown police chiefs, specifically when their police departments come under attack. Tufts recently appointed Yolanda Smith, a Black woman, as the new executive director of public safety. Scholars and activists have cautioned against the idea that diversifying the police force is enough to remedy systemic racism within the police force. Agyei agreed with the criticism, saying that until she sees “some real change in policing and safety at Tufts, [she is not] going to start celebrating just because the director is Black-identifying.” Burnley Jr. echoed these sentiments. “There is a long history of systems operating in a way where they take in actors who could be powerful spokespeople against the institution, and instead use them as shields against criticism,” he said “I don’t want to take someone and say they’re a token… if this person is somehow able to eliminate racial disparities within the police department, I would say that that’s a good thing.” 

Since Smith’s appointment as executive director of public safety, some changes have been made to the capabilities and features of the campus police department. According to Smith, a crisis intervention and threat assessment manager has joined university staff, and TUPD officers now receive an “expanded” mental health response training. Smith also mentioned that students are now able to contact a counselor on call in emergency mental health situations that happen outside of Counseling and Mental Health Services’ hours, rather than the previous policy, which made TUPD officers the intermediary contact. In an email to the Observer, Smith explained her vision of the future of TUPD: “Ultimately, we want to have a public safety program that meets the needs of each member of our community, protects our community, and advances our vision of being an anti-racist institution.” 

Though Smith notes her hope to meet the needs of each member of the community, Woldeyesus and Agyei have both been frustrated with the supposed community engagement efforts—that have in part resulted from the recommendations of the workstream. During orientation week, TUPD were tasked with handing out ice cream to first years at the O-show. Most recently, on October 4, 2021, @tuftspolice on Instagram posted about National Coffee with a Cop Day. In response, Woldeyesus siad,“these efforts are being implemented without the thought or consideration for students who feel particularly endangered by the presence of law enforcement.” Agyei agreed: “Students have been asking for a restructure of the police department for years, and they propose a coffee event?… That’s not what I want. I want them disarmed. I don’t want to sit down and drink coffee with someone who could potentially hurt me.” 

Because many feel that the efforts implemented have fallen short of meeting community needs, students, faculty, and staff are finding alternatives within their own communities instead of awaiting decisions from the Tufts administration. In an email, Gordon emphasized the importance of investing in “immediate responses to incidents that are restorative and reparative, versus punitive and alienating,” and looking towards restorative and transformative justice. Jared Smith, Director of the FIRST Center, explained over email that FIRST center interns and peer leaders are “trained to connect with the Director or Associate Director first,” when responding to a crisis, “unless there is an immediate concern for someone’s safety or wellbeing.” Mills added that from his experience as a Residential Assistant last year, RAs are in a special position to enact transformative justice with their residents. “We can sit down in the hallway and talk about an action that they [their resident] did that… maybe was harmful to the community and how they could move forward from that.” While TUPD moves forward with their coffee propaganda, students, faculty, and staff are attempting to make them obsolete.

While there may have initially been buy-in to these working groups, there seems to be a building consensus among members of the Tufts community that TUPD is standing in the way of change more than providing avenues for it. In a list of demands from TAG, the group called on Tufts to act decisively: “Stop taking small steps, when major transformation is needed along with long-term accountability mechanisms, transparent processes based in community consultation, and commitment to timely action.”