November 2019

What SUNY Albany Tells Us About the Policing of University Space

By examining the rise of university police departments at State University of New York at Albany, the first SUNY school to arm their campus police officers, this article provides a historical perspective to better understand contemporary instances of racialized policing behind university gates.

by Yalile Suriel

In May 2018, Lolade Siyonbola, a Black graduate student at Yale University took a nap in her common room only to be awoken by Yale University Police officers demanding her identification.[1] The ensuing back and forth went viral. Only weeks earlier, Thomas Kanewakeron Gray and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, two Native American brothers, after saving for months to drive themselves to Colorado State University, were pulled off a standard university tour by campus police for “looking suspicious.”[2] In the age of Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, conversations about the hyper-policing and surveillance of Black and Latinx people have been catapulted to the forefront of national conversations. However, the ways in which universities have historically engaged in similar policing of space has often been overlooked in these national discussions. Some universities, particularly public institutions with a large population of minority students, quickly became subject to the tactics and narratives of the War on Drugs. These universities also became sites where the encroaching practices of surveillance were applied to rising student protest. It is by historizing these moments that we can truly grapple with the ways that white supremacy operates within university spaces.

The history of university policing reveals that the construction of these policing apparatuses on campuses was not only incredibly rapid but that it was also the result of multiple and perhaps unsuspecting actors who initially tried to weakly ward off the rise of a carceral state within university space. The attempts of liberal administrators were often insufficient in preventing the rise of surveillance on American campuses. However, their actions and perspectives shaped the contours of what policing on campuses would look like for the next fifty years. When the first State University of New York (SUNY) school armed their officers in 1972, the head of security predicted “it will be rare for a student, faculty member, or visitor on campus to encounter an armed security officer.” So the question starkly emerges: how did we get from unarmed guards in the periphery before 1960 to having nearly 75% of universities having fully-established police departments often operating as a central part of the university 50 years later?[3]

From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, American public universities admitted more Black and Latinx students in the hopes of expanding social mobility. As public institutions in particular implemented initiatives such as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), universities experienced an influx of students of color, resulting in the proportion of Black and Latinx students more than tripling from seven percent in 1964 to twenty-two percent in 1972.[4] But, as public universities opened their campuses to first-generation students, they simultaneously developed new patterns of campus policing and surveillance.

Prior to the 1960s, universities relied on a handful of un-armed security guards to patrol university grounds. However, the rise of student protests brought the intrusion of big city police departments, leading to a series of fatal encounters across the nation. In 1967, the Houston Police Department fired thousands of shots at Black protestors at Texas Houston University. In 1970, the Mississippi Police Department opened fire on a women’s dormitory at Jackson State College, killing two students and injuring twelve others. In 1971, the Buffalo City Police Department occupied the SUNY Buffalo campus for nearly three weeks in order to restore order after a student-athlete strike. While student protests continued to rise and expand, state legislatures placed pressure on universities to get their campuses “under control.”

While we know that these efforts to “restore order” on college campuses sometimes involved FBI surveillance of student radicals, the role of campus police officers in facilitating this surveillance and the subsequent buildup of their own surveillance apparatus has been obfuscated. Against the background of mass incarceration, a phenomenon in which the rates of incarceration for Black and Latinx people climbed by six to eight percent each year from 1970 to 2000, universities also began to transform the ways they policed space, often resulting in the establishment of their own police departments.[5] As universities developed and delineated the boundaries of their newly-established police departments, debates emerged over the arming of officers. The case of State University of New York at Albany, the first SUNY institution to arm its officers, reveals the ways in which arguments were crafted and deployed by law enforcement to subsequently arm their officers and build a surveillance apparatus that by the 1980s and 1990s would become part of the quotidian nature of university life.

SUNY Plaza in Albany, NY. Via Wikimedia.

Located in upstate New York, SUNY Albany became part of the SUNY system in 1959. Shortly thereafter, SUNY Albany became one of SUNY’s four designated major research institutions and by 1967 it had a population of nearly 10,000 students. As a result of programs like the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), SUNY Albany experienced an influx of Black and Puerto Rican students. This change in campus demographics was quickly reflected in the student life of the university with the First Annual Black Cultural Weekend held in April 1970, the founding of the EOP Student Association by Black and Puerto Rican students in September of 1971, and the establishment of the Puerto Rican Organization for Liberation & Education in October of 1971.

By the early 1970s, boards of trustees and state legislators across the nation were busily developing legal systems and measures to deal with increasing protest activity. In addition to intensifying external pressure from lawmakers, universities also faced mounting internal pressure from on-campus law enforcement agents who began to make the case for arming themselves. This was the case particularly at SUNY Albany, where on-campus law enforcement agents continually crafted and refined their arguments, leading university administrators to strongly consider arming their officers. Between 1969 and 1971, policing at SUNY Albany consisted of several unarmed guards split across three shifts and assigned to different locations: 2 unarmed officers for the 7am-3pm shift, 7 unarmed officers for the 3pm to 11pm shift, and 9 unarmed officers for the 11pm-7am shift.[6] However, during those years law enforcement made the case that arming officers and professionalizing the practice of policing university space was of the utmost importance.

This push by officers to be taken more seriously did not go unnoticed by students. On March 1, 1971, Mark Abila, a resident assistant (RA) on duty, received a call from one of the on-campus security officers asking for assistance in dealing with a group of students. The security officer “had caught students throwing darts at a cork-like room divider” and asked the students to stop their actions immediately. The students did not stop and so the officer called the RA “in hopes of gaining support for some disciplinary notion to be taken against the students.”[7]

Upon learning the details of the situation, Abila expressed frustration with the officer and challenged each of his central premises. The officer insisted that the group of students were “destroying University property” and that they were putting other students at risk if someone were to walk behind the screen as they were throwing darts. Abila responded that the room divider was not university property, that it was actually the property of those residents, and that the divider itself was not being destroyed, it was merely being utilized. Abila also pointed out that “if other residents of the hall had asked the three students to stop playing darts because they wanted to study, then I could see a valid point being made” and that the students “were mature enough to realize when they would be endangering another person.”[8] In his exchange with the officer, Abila keenly noted that “the major concern of this officer was that his order had not been obeyed and for him this was intolerable, regardless of whether or not his order was rational.” Abila’s interactions with this officer alarmed him enough to write a letter of this incident to the director of campus security, in which he expressed concern:

it is very dangerous for the university to employ men like this. Not only does his preoccupation with trivia jeopardize the safety of students, but his authoritarian complex fosters a dislike between those who are obeying laws and those who are enforcing them.[9]

This exchange suggests that students and particularly student leaders who had to interact with officers on a daily basis were noticing a change in the approach to policing. By pointing out the danger of hiring men with an authoritarian complex who care more about their orders being followed than student safety, this student captured a shift in the culture of policing university space.

A year later, on July 12, 1972, John Hartley, Vice President for Management and Planning at SUNY Albany, wrote to university president Louis Benezet in order to discuss the authorization to arm officers and to establish the conditions and parameters in which they could be armed. After conversations with several university administrators, Hartley stated that “I think we can establish a policy on the bearing of firearms that we all can live with. We will need to discuss how we can best communicate such a policy to the university once we have agreed on it. As we see it, there are five circumstances which require the carrying of firearms.”

These five circumstances consisted of:

  1. Having armed officers at the university bookstore during the rush periods at the beginning of each semester.
  2. Having armed officers conduct cash pick-ups from the Bursar’s office.
  3. Having armed officers in cases where warrants have been issued for serious felonies or execution of search warrants (particularly drug cases). Some would be uniformed; some would be in plain clothes. These occasions would be infrequent—perhaps not at all if we are lucky—but with the increased police powers provided by the new legislation we may well be expected by the Albany and State Police to handle these problems ourselves. We can only do so if our men are armed.
  4. Having armed officers respond to silent alarms in the FSA office.
  5. Having armed officers respond to dangerous felonies like armed robbery or assault.[10]

Although these conditions in practice meant more policing than the university had ever seen before, these parameters were initially conceptualized as less policing or improved policing, not necessarily as more policing. For example, having armed on-campus officers conduct cash pick-ups was seen as less policing because, at the time, Wells-Fargo guards conducted the pickups with their weapons drawn. This new proposal would have campus officers in charge, and they wouldn’t have weapons drawn, but rather, would carry a standard .38 police revolver in a holster. Second, a recurrent concern that emerges among university administrators is the idea that universities could no longer “expect outside help” from entities beyond the university. As the rumblings of new state legislation that would require universities to take responsibility for policing their campuses made its way to university administrators, these administrators were forced to conceptualize and implement a new system of campus security.[11]

In the midst of constructing this new system, university administrators made clear that they did not envision a world where all officers would be armed all the time.[12] Administrators reiterated that they did not want to “promote the carrying of firearms by campus security personnel” and that they “are not gun buffs, nor do we look on the bearing of firearms with great enthusiasm.”[13] Administrators also knew that the idea of arming officers would cause concern among students of color, noting that it carried an “unhappy connotation especially for certain segments of our student body.”

Nonetheless, within a 10-year period the number of officers authorized to carry weapons increased and the nature of policing on campuses transformed drastically, even beyond arming officers and increasing the amount of patrols. The nature of campus policing became more surveillance-oriented and authoritarian as campuses went from explicitly banning armed officers at any type of student protest to having officers be present at any given student protest. It also included subjecting campuses to the tactics of the War on Drugs by engaging in the practice of planting undercover police officers to aid in drug busts.[14]

At SUNY Albany, campus police were consciously and actively engaged in the mission to transform the nature of policing to better resemble police forces outside the university. By pushing administrators away from the idea that a “law enforcement perspective” and a “student development perspective” can be easily accommodated in daily policing, campus law enforcement made clear that they did not perceive the policing of university space as particularly unique.[15] Furthermore, by insisting on a name change from “Campus Security” to “University Police” and using the rationale that it removed their “softer image” and reflected the idea that “this is not a hometown police department,” campus law enforcement demonstrated their intention to grow into a fully-functioning and more militarized police department.

In a moment where debates over whether or not to arm officers continue in universities across the country, the SUNY Albany case offers us several lessons.[16] First, this case demonstrates that administrators lent credence to campus police arguments about the need for a more militarized and professionalized police force on campus despite student concerns over the growing authoritarianism of campus police.  Second, it prompts us to ask questions about how public universities simultaneously opened their doors to students of color and policed their social organizing as part of the nation’s ongoing response to restore “law and order.” As a result, this obscured history serves as a gateway to understand how America’s punitive approach to law and order in turn shaped university space and how carceral technologies have seeped into institutions of higher education. Lastly, this case urges us to think about the very nature of college campuses and how they serve as both a space for social movement organizing for and by students of color and as a space where surveillance via cameras, peers, and ID cards are constant. It is by truly grappling with the history of campus policing that we can better understand how white supremacy operates within the U.S. university context.

Yalile Suriel is a PhD Candidate in the department of History at SUNY Stony Brook. Her dissertation is titled: “Campus Eyes: University Surveillance and the Policing of Brown and Black Student Activism in the Age of Mass Incarceration, 1960-1990.” She is interested in the intersections between mass incarceration and higher education. Yalile received her undergraduate degree in Political Science from SUNY Stony Brook. She is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and was originally from the Bronx, New York.

Further Reading




[4] Philo A. Hutcheson and Ralph D. Kidder, Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research: Volume 26 (2011).

[5] National Research Council, Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (2013).

[6] Campus Security 1969-1970, Office of the President Collection, Series 10, Box 14 University Archives, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University at Albany, State University of New York.

[7] Campus Security 1971-1972, Office of the President Collection, Series 10, Box 14 University Archives, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University at Albany, State University of New York.

Note: names have been changed to protect student information.

[8] Campus Security 1971-1972, Office of the President Collection, Series 10, Box 14 University Archives, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University at Albany, State University of New York.

[9] IBID.

[10] Campus Security 1971-1972, Office of the President Collection, Series 10, Box 14 University Archives, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University at Albany, State University of New York.

[11] IBID.

[12] IBID. Records emphasized that “authorization does not mean that these officers (about 10 people) would always be armed on campus. We would expect that there would usually be not more than 2 or 3 officers armed at the same time.”

[13] IBID.

[14] Ronald Sullivan, “Jersey Police Plant Coed Narcotics Spy: Police Use a Coed Spy to Find Fairleigh Dickinson Narcotics,” New York Times. March 12, 1967.

[15] Office of the President Collection, Series 10, Box 14 University Archives, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University at Albany, State University of New York.


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