What’s There to See? : Questioning Police Presence on Campus
When you see the police, what flashes through your mind? Do you see their uniforms, badges, cruisers, and guns as tools to uphold your security? Does their presence give you a feeling of safety, as though they can ward off danger?
When I see the police, news clips flash through my mind, and I’m even further troubled by the incidents that never make the news—the ones that occur beyond my field of vision, yet haunt me nonetheless. I’m immediately gripped by the ongoing history and increasingly prevalent footage of state trained officers harassing, surveilling, and killing Black, Brown, queer, and trans people. I see their uniforms, badges, cruisers, and guns as weapons that, at any moment, could be used against me. Most times I’ve come across the police, their presence has brought a feeling of unsafety—they are the danger.
With that in mind, I make it a point to avoid police as much as possible; Tufts University Police Department is no exception. When I walk by them in the Commons during late-night meal service, I either greet them with a forced polite smile or avoid their gaze completely. When I saw them posted outside of Hotung with metal detectors at a Black city-wide event during my freshman year, I almost didn’t want to go in. As I saw them staring down and watching people dance from the second floor balcony, I wondered what they were looking for, as if our fun needed to be policed.
For students of color who desire a safe space to have fun at a party with other people of color, Tufts can be a very difficult place to be. For Caila Bowen, a junior at Tufts, organizing Black events and parties is made even more difficult when it comes to engaging with TUPD. According to Caila, Tufts police unfairly targets Black parties, with the most recent occurrence this past Friday, September 16. Caila, along with her fellow organizers, cleared SOGO Multipurpose room for a du-rag and bonnet themed party, coordinating with Office for Campus Life for the party to last until 1 a.m., consistent with most late-night campus engagements.
At approximately 11:45 p.m., a White TUPD officer came to the party, stating that the party was asked to be shut down. The party’s organizers all addressed the officer and explained that they had coordinated with OCL to have the party end at 1 a.m. and the officer said okay, and left. Not too long after, Caila said, a second officer came, and this time it was a Black officer. He proceeded to tell Caila that the noise was so loud, he could feel it from his cruiser, saying, “Y’all need to turn it down to the point where it’s not lit anymore.” Caila had notified the DJ after the first visit that the music was too loud, and so she obliged again. After that exchange, he returned to his vehicle but stayed on the premises, keeping a watchful eye. About ten minutes later, the same officer returned, entered the party, which was already waning due to the police’s persistent presence, and waved his flashlight across the room.
This was one of the many times Caila has witnessed TUPD officers putting a stop to a POC party—particularly those with primarily Black attendance—and it was particularly frustrating that she wasn’t allowed to let it go on until the agreed time of 1 a.m. Worse yet, Caila has never seen TUPD shut down a frat party in the same manner, let alone enter into their party space flashing lights towards what was, at that point, a relatively small crowd. In her own words, “It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. And I think what makes it worse is that these officers really and truly must think we’re idiots. We’re following your rules, yet you still feel the need to shut our party down.”
In all of my brief encounters with TUPD, I’ve had feelings ranging from fear, to apprehension, to insecurity, to anger. All of these feelings are inseparable from my experience as a Black man—one who has been on the receiving end of discriminatory and hostile behavior from police within my own neighborhood. In a campus community with such visible and consistent police presence, anyone with trauma related to past negative experiences with police is vulnerable to being re-traumatized at any moment. For many of my peers, especially those of color, their first or most uncomfortable experiences with the police have occurred here at Tufts.
A Black-identifying first-year student at Tufts, who has chosen to remain anonymous, explained her recent encounter with police that left her feeling singled out because of her Blackness. As she explained in her interview, her roommate and some friends went out onto the roof of Dewick through their dorm room window. By the time the student returned to her room, her roommate— who’s White—and her friends, only one of which was of color, had come back inside. Not long after, TUPD officers approached their room from the roof. The officer explained that someone had called the station reporting that there were people out on the roof. The student stated that this was her room, and that she had only just gotten there, unaware of what her roommate and her friends had been doing.
She recounted: “As soon as I explained to them that this was my room, I could feel a shift in the tone. They immediately asked for our school IDs, and told us about how it’s dangerous and that people have fallen before. They even held my ID, along with one of my roommate’s friends’, longer than they held the rest while they talked to us.”
The student was particularly disturbed that the officer had asked for their IDs only after she had spoken, as a Black student, to say that it was her room, holding hers longer as if she was presumed to be guilty.
The student’s experience of assumed culpability based upon her race is one that has been shared by others within the Tufts community. K. Martinez, Director of the Women’s Center, has had two experiences with TUPD within their four months of being here, after over 10 years of experience at various other colleges and universities where they never had any interactions with campus police officers before.
In the first instance, they were on the steps of Richardson dormitory with a friend on a late night during the summer. They were granted a temporary residence at this particular dorm, which should’ve been on the radar for TUPD officers who are responsible to know who’s living where on this campus and when. As they were walking their friend out, a TUPD patrol SUV stopped in front of the dorm (he pulled over abruptly at a 45-degree angle, then parked facing the wrong side of the street). As the officer remained in his vehicle, K. went down to meet him. They tried to remain as calm and cordial as possible, and the officer asked them, “Who are you?” They then explained that they worked here and were living in this building over the summer, also insisting to show their ID. After a brief exchange and some small talk, the officer claimed he was just checking, and continued on his patrol.
In their interview, they explained: “My friend and I are both queer Black and Brown people. It made me question a sense of belonging. Do they see us and our bodies on this campus and wonder, like, ‘Who are those people?’ If we had been White, I wonder if he would have stopped us. It definitely impacts me psychologically to be like ‘Do I belong on this campus? Who belongs here?’”
In the second instance, K. Martinez noticed an unmarked vehicle parked outside of the Women’s Center during Strut, a party during orientation sponsored by the LGBT and Women’s Centers. They were immediately concerned with who was in the car, and whether they had gone inside the building. Realizing it was an unmarked police vehicle, they walked inside with their hands up, not knowing what to expect upon entry. They were quickly approached by two officers in bulletproof vests, who, after hearing their explanation as to why the building was open, decided it was safe to move on.
The 45-degree angle tactic used in the first situation, and the presence of an unmarked vehicle in the second, suggest to me that TUPD is well prepared to respond to potentially serious threats on this campus, but they also present a more worrying dilemma: what if they falsely perceive that threat to be a member of our own community? Why were two unarmed, non-threatening people standing outside of a building, one which TUPD should’ve known was occupied, approached as though they were hostile invaders to this campus? Was their presence potentially dangerous enough to warrant a shutdown of the whole street? Or was their skin color?
A major concern as to the usage of these tactics by TUPD is the increased militarization of police. Since 2008, TUPD officers have been armed with and trained to use semi-automatic rifles in cases where deadly force is being used to harm or kill. Now, and possibly in years past, TUPD uses unmarked vehicles. Such developments make me, and others, wonder what’s next for our campus. The Department of Defense holds what is called the 1033 program, where it transfers surplus military equipment, ranging from mine-resistant vehicles to small weapon accessories, to law enforcement agencies across all 50 states. This also includes agencies that exist on college campuses, like TUPD. Some universities, like Texas Southern, have taken this as an opportunity to arm themselves with the mine-proof tanks. Campus police shot and killed Scout Schultz on September 16, and at this moment are using tear gas on students protesting Schultz’s murder. It is my hope that TUPD decides against arming itself further to resemble a small army. However, in the case that it already has done this, it’d be great for us to know about it first.
What does it mean when your campus police use unmarked vehicles, but do not notify the campus-dwelling community? The deployment of unmarked vehicles is a tactic often used by police to remain unnoticed whilst surveilling criminal activity—and it’s quite possible that there could be incidents on this campus that warrant such a response. However, if these surveillance vehicles are to be used in the interest of the community, we should be informed about why, and to what end.
It is also important for me to note that as I pose these questions and concerns to you, the reader, I have also posed them to Deputy Chief Mark L. Keith, who has chosen to defer my questions so they can be reviewed by him and by the Director of Public Safety, and to have them be responded to at a time later than the publication of this article. When the Deputy Chief and Director have to ‘review’ questions as plain and direct as, “How many [unmarked] vehicles does TUPD have? What are they used for? Why not use a marked police car?” I have to wonder whether these questions were ever expected to be answered in the first place. And, if those who are trained and tasked to protect us, the Tufts community, don’t answer to us, who do they answer to?
The more I walk on this campus at night and notice a black vehicle with tinted black windows parked outside of Aidekman or stowed in the first level parking lot in front of their station at Dowling, it becomes harder for me to know if TUPD is watching out for me, or just plain watching me.