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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: UNC is asking the wrong questions about police on campus

The Old Well is pictured on Oct. 17, 2021

On Nov. 1, Derek B. Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, sent every UNC student a survey to give feedback on UNC Police. 

The survey, billed as a “Customer Service Survey,” ranges from benign questions about their website, more insidious questions about the adequacy of police officers’ visibility on campus and patently ridiculous questions about whether changing officers’ uniform color might make them more approachable. 

A version of the survey is sent to students and employees roughly every three years and is designed in conjunction with the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.

"We value the input of our students, faculty and staff and hope they will take the time to share their thoughts and perspectives, which will help UNC Police better represent and protect the entire Carolina community," Kemp said in an email statement. 

But questions from UNC Police on their presence and programming assumes they play some kind of beneficial role for students and staff, and that, with improved service and trust, could make the University safer.

These same assumptions underlie the now-defunct Campus Safety Commission, created by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in 2019 to address a “crisis of trust” between campus police and the larger community. The commission dissolved earlier this fall after seeing its efforts consistently undermined by decisions beyond their control. 

In the commission’s final report, released this past summer, the members wrote that transformative justice concepts, “like a Mental Health Taskforce Response team, demilitarizing campus police, and other alternatives to police presence are supported overwhelmingly by students of color.” 

Even this commission, tasked with building trust between police and community members, found that the best solution was simply getting rid of the police.

This is the flaw in UNC’s approach to police reform. It assumes UNC Police can be reformed and will one day be beneficial to this campus. The reality is, the role UNC Police plays has always been a safety threat to students and staff of color — especially those who are Black. This reality is reflected in the published results from the 2018 Police Department Customer Service Survey, which found that respondents of color reported feeling less safe on campus and less comfortable approaching police officers on campus than their white counterparts.

Just this year, UNC Police officer Rahsheem Holland allegedly assaulted student protesters at a Board of Trustees meeting regarding journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' tenure case. 

In a video shared on social media, Holland appears to punch a Black student in the face. Instead of being fired, he now serves as acting UNC Police chief, a decision that was quickly condemned and protested by Black-led student groups.

Even for students who have not been assaulted by police, the threat they pose is a constant distraction from the education students are supposed to be getting.

Campus Y Co-president Patrice McGloin addressed these issues when the Campus Y was broken into last year. Students of color were concerned that UNC Police, who McGloin says had been "hostile" towards the campus community, would only compound feelings of unsafety. 

"Our asks for alternative protection other than a police presence were completely ignored," McGloin said in an email.

Instead of addressing student concerns, the UNC-System Board of Governors doubled the Campus Security Fee to $60 per student. A number of student government officials have since released a proposal to instead use that money for increased mental health services, expanded interpersonal violence prevention training and additional late-night transportation options. 

Neel Swamy, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Government, said in an email that his conversations with administration have left him "optimistic" that the fees will be spent to address these key areas.

"We expect that the final funding numbers will be shared with the entire campus community in the coming weeks, but my current feeling is optimistic that this funding will go towards key areas to support student, staff, and faculty safety at Carolina," Swamy said. 

As the proposals from the student government and the recommendations from the Campus Safety Commission indicate, divesting from UNC Police is not just a reasonable path forward, but it is also the most effective path forward. The Town of Chapel Hill’s own Re-Imagining Community Safety Task Force came to a similar conclusion about policing in the town in a report from June.

“We are convinced that many of the best ways to make Chapel Hill safer, in the long run, are only tangentially related to the police,” the Task Force wrote in their 2021 report. Instead of investments in law enforcement, the report recommends expanding affordable housing opportunities, expanding mental health and addiction support and recovery, and developing non-police crisis response teams.

If the University wants to actually improve “customer service” and build trust with students of color, it needs to reduce and remove the police force from this campus. But it is not willing to consider this despite the plethora of proposals and recommendations for alternative systems. Until that happens, UNC Police will continue to pose a safety risk to students.


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