Stacey Hines, a junior at the University of Washington, never considered himself an activist until last summer’s George Floyd protests in Seattle and nationwide led him to think more deeply about his involvement in social justice issues.
“Seeing the demands (Seattle protesters) posted over the summer and seeing the work being done on campus really inspired me to be a part of that,” he said.
Hines is one of thousands of college students throughout the United States and Canada who have joined a widespread, university-based coalition that’s pushing for lasting change within all police forces, but specifically those within educational institutions, including public and private K-12 schools, universities and vocational and professional schools. As of this week, groups representing more than 80 colleges and universities — including the University of Washington and Seattle University — have banded together to make up the Cops off Campus coalition.
Their demands are similar to those that many protesters and activists have pushed for in their local law-enforcement agencies in the year since Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. They say armed police responses are unnecessary in many cases and can have devastating consequences, particularly for people of color, who are killed by police at higher rates than white people. Some groups are asking their school administration to slash police budgets and redirect funds to student groups. Some want to disarm all their on-campus officers. Others are working to completely abolish school police.
“(Students) see educational spaces as sites where the norms of not just current society but future society are made,” said Chandan Reddy, a UW professor of gender, women and sexuality studies who has been in Cops off Campus meetings since its inception last fall. “What we allow and don’t allow on campus and what kinds of conversations we have about those choices really do shape all students as future citizens about what the norms of a social order look like.”
The coalition of schools is wrapping up “Abolition May,” a monthlong series of rallies, teach-ins and solidarity events at each school. Yale’s school community held its day of action on May 7. New York University’s turn came on May 12. Virginia Tech on May 22. Each day of action was organized by the school’s respective group, tailored to the specific needs of each campus.
“The interest, the investment, the pressure, the direction action, the response from various institutions — it’s all more than we could have hoped for,” said SA Smythe, one of the founding members of Cops off Campus and an assistant professor at UCLA. “And dozens of groups are still joining the call.”
In the Pacific Northwest, UW and Seattle U. held their joint day of action at UW’s Seattle campus on Sunday.
Megan Ybarra, a UW geography professor who helped create a group called Decriminalize UW and organize the weekend teach-in, told the roughly 40 people who showed up that she got involved after last summer’s protests prompted her to reflect on how people could hold their own individual institutions accountable.
UW’s Black Student Union and Decriminalize UW submitted a list of demands to its administration last fall, which includes disarming police officers, cutting the $8.2 million police budget by at least $6 million and dismantling a George Washington statue on campus, which activists say pays homage to slave owners.
In response, the UW Police Department has made several changes, said the department’s Major Steve Rittereiser, who’s worked at the school for 11 years.
The department has cut 20% of its staff — about seven positions, mostly through attrition. It also launched a new online citizen reporting system, which aims to “significantly reduce armed police response and armed police interactions on campus,” according to a letter UW President Ana Mari Cauce and provost Mark Richards sent to the school community in September.
“We acknowledge that we can and must do more to support you and to create the kinds of institutional changes needed to build a more inclusive environment that will lead to more equitable outcomes in education and beyond for our Black and BIPOC students,” the letter said. “… To this end, we commit to continuing to work with you, and with all our students, faculty and staff.”
The police department has also created a new team of campus safety responders, whom Rittereiser describes as unarmed campus ambassadors that respond to after-the-fact calls, like bike thefts or car or property damage. As of this week, the department has hired two campus safety responders, and is planning to bring on at least four more before the fall, he said.
“There are clearly situations where we don’t need police officers to do public safety activities,” Rittereiser said. He added that the safety responders will wear their own uniforms and look “completely different” from campus police.
Most cases handled by campus police are not violent crimes: In 2020, property crimes — including burglaries and thefts — made up about 97% of UWPD responses. In general, the groups like Cops off Campus and Decriminalize UW have said that officers don’t help prevent crimes from happening; but instead investigate the matter after-the-fact. They feel that doesn’t necessarily help the victim, especially in sexual-assault cases.
“Our approach has been an open mind and listening ear,” Rittereiser said. “We continue to embrace community engagement and we think we’re better because we engage very well with the community.”
He said he didn’t know any details about whether the department’s budget would be cut, per Decriminalize UW’s demands.
The budget includes sworn officers, dispatchers, security guards, campus safety responders, security supervisors, compliance and public records personnel, an accreditation manager, receptionists, a public safety records administrator and a civilian crime analyst and victim advocate, according to a UW spokesperson.
Students on UW Bothell’s campus also have demands, which focus on trying to terminate a contract with the Bothell Police Department that assigns a Bothell officer to the campus, said Mumina Ali, a UW Bothell junior and director of government relations in the school’s student governing body.
At Seattle University, students and community members recently formed the Total Abolition Coalition, which isn’t officially affiliated with the school but is pushing to remove police officers from the campus “in every capacity,” said a member of the group who asked to not be identified.
Despite the police department’s efforts, some UW students and faculty members are pressing for more significant changes, particularly around the budget and the George Washington statue.
“The hypocrisy is just the idea that the school will tote and flex all of the diversity initiatives … but at the same time, they’re going to be the same administration that wants to … try and hinder what Black progress looks like on campus,” said Emanuel Tesfaye, a sophomore and Black Student Union board member.
Because students graduate after four or five years and have struggled to maintain consistent, long-term pressure on the UW administration, the Black Student Union will, this summer, attempt to amp up recruitment efforts particularly among underclassmen, said Stacey Hines, a junior, and member of the student union. .
“(UW leaders) really bet on and succeed in counting on student burnout and then flipping the script in four years, after the students are gone,” Tesfaye added. “We’ve seen it time and time again here on campus.”
Hines said groups like Decriminalize UW and Subvert UD — formerly UW BLM — “prove we have strength in numbers. And I believe that accumulating strength in numbers is going to be one of the biggest things in fighting burnout.”
While the school year is coming to an end in a few weeks, students are excited to refocus their attention on a different type of work, he said.
“We’re not doing this for ourselves — we’re doing this for the greater community, we’re doing this for Black students on campus and we’re doing this … for all marginalized students on campus,” Hines said. “We know what the impact we’re going toward (is) and we know how to get there. And I think that right there is the driving force.”