2019 November 2019

Race and Policing in Higher Education

This article explores the history of police presence in the university setting to understand the gap between administrators' professed desire to keep campuses safe through policing and the reality that police presence makes campus climates less safe for students of color.

by Cobretti D. Williams

In April 2018, a Black Harvard Law student was punched in the stomach several times and pinned to the ground by Cambridge police. Since then, students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have accused UNC administration of arbitrary arrests and police brutality against anti-racist protesters. One could suggest these were isolated events, however the recent frequency of these incidents suggest a bigger, alarming trend in campus safety, one that mirrors the prevalence of documented cases of police brutality across the country. As of 2017, Campus Safety and Security statistics from the Office of Postsecondary Education reported over 52,000 arrests at over 6,300 institutions across the country. This leads one to inquire about the gap between administrators’ professed purpose for police presence on campus—to protect the university community—and the lived reality their presence has on the college student population, particularly for underrepresented students who already face systemic oppression in U.S. society. This article takes a closer look at the history of policing and its influence on the campus climate for students, helping to assess whether police presence does in fact create a safe, equitable environment for all.

The history of campus policing dates back to the late 19th century. In 1894, Yale University established the first campus police department after relations between the New Haven community and students from Yale Medical School became tense; after which point, two police officers, Bill Weiser and Jim Donnolly, were assigned exclusively to the Yale campus. Before this precedent, university campuses were keen to handle student unrest through a network of deans, faculty, and administrators in loco parentis, which gave the university unilateral authority to discipline students. However, the social and political climate changed in the 1960s. The United States became engulfed in myriad political and social issues over the next two decades, including the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.  Furthermore, after the passage of Brown v Board of Education and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1965, higher education had to respond to a racially integrated and otherwise diverse student population. For institutions that were predominantly White and male, integrating historically marginalized and underrepresented groups in higher education presented challenges and fomented social unrest.

In short, the rise in student activism and challenges to campus’ status quo became issues of heightened concern for many institutions. Protests began to dominate campus life, and at times resulted in conflict between local police and student activists, a prominent example of which is the deadly Kent State shooting in 1970. To manage an assumed need for law enforcement, college presidents began lobbying for state legislation that would allow the creation of campus police departments. Their efforts were largely successful: as of 2015, over 44 states now allow colleges to form campus police forces, and most public colleges and nearly all private universities have a standing police department on campus. Still today, administrators at both public and private universities advocate for increased policing on their campuses. President Ronald Daniels of John Hopkins University recently lobbied for the implementation of a campus police force, stating that “I want to respectfully but unequivocally reject the characterization that many have used that this legislation creates a private police force. To my mind, I believe this is and can be public policing at its best.” After activists pulled down the Confederate monument Silent Sam in 2018, the University of North Carolina hired an “expert panel” to recommend additional law enforcement measures for campus, citing that “UNC-CH faces a high risk of violence, civil disorder and property damage when the Silent Sam monument is restored on campus.” Yet, while administrators view policing as a necessity for peace, the students and community often hold pessimistic views of police and law enforcement on campus.

A gathering opposing Silent Sam at UNC-Chapel Hill in February 2018.

The public view of campus police is often associated with that of state and federal law enforcement agencies. Though they may share obvious similarities, it is fair to note campus police have a multitude of responsibilities that center on enforcement of institutional policies, disciplinary action, and compliance with local, state, and federal law. Additionally, the Campus Security Act of 1990, requires postsecondary institutions provide access to campus crime data as well as descriptions of policies and practices created to manage crime-related incidents.  In many cases, their jurisdiction of power extends beyond the campus perimeter and into the surrounding community, which may or may not reflect the campus population. As such, much research is needed to understand the complex and multivalent influence police and security officers have on the campus environment, including how community members, students, staff, and faculty are impacted by police presence.

However, empirical research across constituencies is woefully lacking. Generally speaking, most campus security officers and student affairs administrators find the presence of campus police to be helpful and effective. Furthermore, after conducting a nationwide survey comparison between sworn and non-sworn campus police departments, Bromley and Reaves stated, “The extent to which a campus police or security department utilizes standard police equipment creates for the community an impression of the enforcement authority possessed by patrol officers.” In short, support from university administration lies in the visual and physical perception of police officers’ ability to maintain control, rather than to create a safe campus environment for all students. Thus, on many campuses, one will find officers who are operating marked patrol vehicles, carrying a firearm, and other items that convey an ability to assert force when necessary. The issues with these particular findings are that in both cases, students were not included in the survey, and in the rare instance they are, the majority of respondents are White students. These gaps lack considerable perspective from the student populations and groups that have a historic experience with law enforcement, especially when factoring race as a key indicator of attitudes towards police. Additionally, though findings from a research study of Black students’ perception of law enforcement were mixed regarding personal interactions with police, a majority found campus police to be biased in their response to similar incidents with students of different races, directing physical force towards students of color. Although police brutality has not been exclusive to the experience of Black students on campus, there is a stark contrast between the belief of administrators and campus police that law enforcement is beneficial to the campus environment and that of students who report feeling unsafe toward, distrustful of, and racially profiled by police.

One only need to look to the history and practice of law enforcement in the United States to understand popular distrust of law enforcement. Ever since the institutionalization of slavery in the U.S. and the creation of slave patrols in the antebellum South, law enforcement has been a mechanism through which Black people were controlled to maintain White power and order. Since then, the use of law enforcement has been exercised more frequently across other marginalized and oppressed groups including the active and historical internment of Latino, Asian, Native, and Indigenous people. Given these experiences and the ways in which law enforcement perpetuates racism and White supremacy, distrust and lack of cooperation between campus police and marginalized students is self-evident. In cases where students of color already experience hostility within an environment that is predominantly White and that lacks support for students with marginalized social identities, the threat of potential police brutality only serves to compound a situation where students do not feel safe, despite administrators’ claims that campus police departments exist to protect the campus community.

What began as a strategy to alleviate campus unrest has become an institutionalized mechanism for regulation, compliance, and order. While the impact may not be felt broadly, the images and narratives of those most impacted by law enforcement—namely students of color—reveal that campus policing is an emerging issue in higher education. Without critical examination of the enforcement practices of police and acknowledgement of their noted history of racism and White supremacy, campus police officers—and the higher education institutions that hire and create them—will continue to reproduce a hostile environment based on law and order rather than safety and care.

Cobretti D. Williams is an academic affairs administrator and doctoral candidate in Higher Education with a concentration in Women and Gender Studies. He has previously editorships with the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs and the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. His research focuses on critical analysis of race, gender, and sexuality in higher education governance, leadership, and theory.  His latest publications can be found in the Journal of Negro EducationWomen’s Studies International ForumHigherEd360, and Diverse Issues in Higher Education. To learn more about his work or collaborate with him on a potential project, please email cobretti.williams@gmail.com.

Further Reading

Broadwater, L. (2019). Hopkins president pitches Maryland lawmakers on need for police force; students, community advocates push back. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-hopkins-police-hearing-20190222-story.html

Embrick, D. G. (2015). Two nations, revisited: The lynching of black and brown bodies, police brutality, and racial control in ‘post-racial’Amerikkka. Critical Sociology, 41(6), 835-843.

Firmin, B. (2019). Student arrest at Harvard University sparks controversy over claims of police brutality. The Daily Pennsylvanian. Retrieved from


Jacobsen, S. K. (2015). Policing the ivory tower: Students’ perceptions of the legitimacy of campus police officers. Deviant Behavior36(4), 310-329.

Janosik, S. M., & Gregory, D. E. (2003). The Clery Act and its influence on campus law enforcement practices. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 41(1), 182-199.

Kammerer, A. (2019). Black students’ lived experiences with and perceptions of law enforcement. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2019/winter/thomas

Mbuba, J. M. (2010). Attitudes toward the police: The significance of race and other factors among college students. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 8(3), 201-215.

Nelson, L. (2015). Why nearly all colleges have an armed police force. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/7/29/9069841/university-of-cincinnati-police

Spruill, L. (2016). Slave patrols,‘packs of Negro dogs’ and policing black communities. Phylon, 53(1), 42-66.

The College Fix (2019). UNC protesters accuse campus cops of police brutality in protest that leaves window smashed. Retrieved from https://www.thecollegefix.com/unc-protesters-accuse-campus-cops-of-police-brutality-in-protest-that-leaves-window-smashed/

Types of sworn law enforcement. Discover Policing. Retrieved from https://www.discoverpolicing.org/explore-the-field/types-of-sworn-law-enforcement/

UNC Board of Governors. (2019). Executive summary of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill public safety panel report. Retrieved from https://bot.unc.edu/files/2018/12/12_03_18-Report-Appendices.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2019). The handbook for campus safety and security reporting. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/campus.html

Office of Postsecondary Education. (2019). Campus Safety and Security: Arrests and disciplinary actions. Retrieved from https://ope.ed.gov/campussafety/Trend/public/#/answer/4/401/main?row=-1&column=-1

Yale University. (2019). History of the Yale Police Department. Retrieved from https://your.yale.edu/community/public-safety/police/history-ypd

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