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Thursday, May 30, 2024

A look into UC Davis policing reform: what is the role of campus law enforcement?

Police chief, ASUCD chairperson, sociology professors discuss campus policing and the UC Davis Police Department

Characterized by protests and civil unrest, the 1960s was a period not unlike today. Activists marched in the streets, expressing their dissent and struggling with local authorities. Consequently, the turbulent decade, defined by the Vietnam War, counterculture and the Civil Rights movement, was also the source of widespread campus policing. 

The initially peaceful and later violent protests of the 1960s caused many college campuses to establish their own police departments. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st century, the number of campus departments in the U.S. grew, totaling over 4,000 by 2015 at both public and private postsecondary schools.

According to UC Davis criminology lecturer Shane Logan, the goals of campus administration regarding policing have shifted over the years. 

“As we see an increased focus on campus safety with sexual assaults and mandatory campus reporting of crimes taking place on or around campus, administrators increase their focus on policing to increase the marketability of their school, especially in light of declining enrollments, the need to justify higher tuitions and more metrics of competition beyond just academic performance,” Logan said.

The UC Davis Police Department (UCDPD) has been operating for over 70 years. Particularly in the past decade, the department has had a complicated relationship with the student body. It has served the community by employing students while at the same time has undergone reform as a result of incidents of violence.

The event that led to the most significant reform occurred on Nov. 18, 2011, when university students set up tents on the UC Davis quad as a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Campus police officers pepper-sprayed a group of students after they refused to vacate the area.

“When I got here in August of 2017, I saw our department as a department that was doing the best that they could on the job, but they certainly had their history, their issues that we had to deal with, pepper spray being the one that is probably the most visible to a lot of people,” said Joseph Farrow, chief of police at the UCDPD. “I think people are still reeling from that. I think we really needed to look at the way we go about our business and the way that we train, we recruit and really have some guidance.” 

 Calls for more radical change in policing such as defunding and abolishing the police have gained prevalence over the past few months with growing participation in Black Lives Matter and outrage over the death of George Floyd. According to a Gallup poll from 2020, 58% of Americans say policing needs major changes but only 15% are in favor of abolition.

“The incidents across the nation, specifically the George Floyd incident, caused this reaction that all of a sudden we had to change,” Farrow said. “I think we recognized that years ago for us to really do a better job [we had to] really respond and listen to our community better.” 

According to campus financial reports, the UC system spent $138 million on policing across its campuses in the 2018-2019 year. Many UC organizations, students and staff recently signed a Justice for Black Lives petition to abolish all UC campus police departments and end policing contracts, stating that funds could be reallocated to better serve the community. A petition signed by faculty members in June similarly called for an end to campus policing in Davis.

“One of the things that the petition itself states [is that] campus policing is the most effective place to begin this project,” said Elizabeth Siggins, a UC Davis criminal justice lecturer and a signatory of the faculty petition. “I believe strongly that we could have better solutions for campus safety.”

Logan had considered signing the petition but decided against it, stating that although it was a difficult decision for him, there are ultimately better ways to improve policing.

“I believe that a complete disbanding of the campus police is not the best way to go,” Logan said. “Re-organizing it to change the structures and incentives to better align with the community they serve can produce far greater benefits without some of the unintended consequences of complete abolition.”

In response to mounting concerns about the policing system, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May announced on June 11, 2020 the establishment of the Next Generation Reforms to Advance Campus Safety Task Force to reevaluate campus policing. The task force is scheduled to report its recommendations by Dec. 15.

“As law enforcement departments across the country are scrutinized—and justly so—for how they respond to and interact with others, I’m calling on our community to come together and examine what we can do to improve our community policing,” May stated in his charge letter to the task force.

This task force is the most recent in a series of reforms for the UCDPD.

UCDPD: A Timeline of Reform

January 2005 — ASUCD Student-Police Relations Committee established (currently vacant, overseen by the ASUCD Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission) as a result of the 2004 Sterling Riot

November 2011 — Pepper spray incident

March 2012 — Reynoso report released, detailing investigations into the 2011 incident and identifying errors in police conduct and the decision-making process 

April 2014 — Police Accountability Board (PAB) established to externally evaluate complaints about the UCDPD 

April 2017 — Davis Picnic Day incident: a fight ensued between civilians and two plainclothes police officers

August 2017 — UCDPD started hiring students

April 2018 — Presidential Task Force on Universitywide Policing established

October 2018 — UCDPD began seeking accreditation

December 2018 — Report of the Presidential Task Force on Universitywide Policing released, recommending establishing an independent advisory board for each department

June 2020 — University-wide calls to abolish campus policing

June 2020 — Next Generation Reforms to Advance Campus Safety Task Force established

In the past, ASUCD has pushed for policing reform. According to Shelby Salyer, a fourth-year political science and history double major and ASUCD External Affairs Commission (EAC) Chair, the efforts have faced opposition within the organization, particularly during the 2018-2019 school year under former ASUCD President Michael Gofman.

“The main issue with ASUCD and police reform is the fact that various commissions and senators have been working for years on these issues and have faced significant push backs every step of the way,” Salyer said. “The Gofman presidency in ASUCD significantly hindered the efforts of police reform in ASUCD.” 

Despite initial resistance to and the failure of a senate resolution (SR #10) to disarm campus police on April 29, 2019, ASUCD successfully passed a similar resolution (SR #16) on June 7, 2019. However, Salyer said, Gofman supported two resolutions (SR #7 and #8) to support local law enforcement during the year, contributing to a pro-policing culture within ASUCD. 

“It was not welcomed to speak out against police violence in ASUCD then and it is not welcome now,” Salyer said. “The Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission [ECAC] got death threats sent to its Facebook account for advocating against police terror. The mentality of this era of ASUCD and its treatment of ECAC is still pervasive in the senate.”

Beyond student reform, the latest administrative initiative—the chancellor’s task force—will not effectively address the EAC’s concerns about UCDPD and the policing budget, Salyer said. They hope that the administration will meet the demands listed in the Justice for Black Lives petition.

“I think that task forces are a way for institutions to publically look like they’re doing something about an issue while, in reality, they’re doing the opposite,” Salyer said. “What good is a police reform task force if our police budget just got increased? There’s something wrong with a task force based on reform when the Justice for Black lives petition demands the abolition of UCDPD and reinvestment into community members in need.”

Logan, echoing Salyer’s belief that task forces are often ineffective, mentioned that they function to quiet protestors, as they allow for several months between their announcement and release of findings.

“The hope being, public attention moved on and pressure is no longer present for actionable change,” Logan said. “I’m not saying that this is the case, but a task force is insufficient for the change needed within campus policing. I hope that pressure persists for more quantifiable, meaningful, timely and verifiable measures [to] come about from the current movement.”

Improving the system by identifying the functions of policing is inadequate, according to Siggins. Understanding implicit biases, determining appropriate responses to behaviors and looking at racial justice, Siggins said, are essential parts of the process.

“We have to make an absolutely fundamental shift in committing to the safety of everyone,” Siggins said. “We can’t just be thinking about this in terms of how we respond after an incident has occurred.” 

Furthermore, Siggins hopes that those pushing for reform will recognize that the national movement towards a shift in policing has the potential to create lasting change.

“What’s happening right now really helps to illustrate that our history has kind of repeated itself a few times and that up until this moment in time we have repeatedly failed to take advantage of those moments in history to really dismantle white supremacy,” Siggins said. “I do believe now that we are at one of those pivotal moments.”

Written by: Sophie Dewees –– features@theaggie.org


  1. You should have asked for a counterpoint to Salyer’s take, as there certainly is one and it is no less valid. Without it, this is not a balanced article and does not qualify as journalism.


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