Cops Off Campus group opposes Chancellor Gary May’s Campus Safety Task Force

Cops Off Campus group opposes Chancellor Gary May’s Campus Safety Task Force

Although May says that task forces are an effective way to bring about change, many members of the Cops Off Campus group say that task forces legitimize policing

Months after the murder of George Floyd and the widespread racial justice protests that followed, there have been extensive calls to end policing as we know it; some scholars have suggested that national, systemic change must begin within the UC system with the abolition of UC police departments (UCPD).

In response to the events of this summer, Chancellor Gary May founded the Next Generation Reforms to Advance Campus Safety Task Force, charging the group in a letter written on June 11, 2020.

 “The name wound up longer than I wanted it to be,” May said. “But the goal is basically to reimagine what campus safety should look like. It was, like many other efforts, fueled by the George Floyd incident and other things during the summer that got people to rethink and refocus on policing: why we do it and how we do it.” 

More recently, students have noticed flyers appear on campus in opposition to the task force which read “EVERY TIME WE HEAR THE WORDS TASK FORCE A WINDOW BREAKS.” These flyers were put up by the UC Davis Cops Off Campus group, according to the flyers themselves. The group’s aim is to “see a campus without police,” according to Emily Rich, a third-year English Ph.D. student and member of the UC Davis Cops Off Campus group. There is also a larger UC-wide coalition, UC F*** The Police (UCFTP), which is pushing for the abolition of UCPD across all 10 campuses.

“I think the message speaks for itself,” Rich said via email. 

May said that he does not think that the group’s message is constructive in the greater dialogue regarding campus safety. 

“I don’t really understand [the message],” May said. “Their message is not constructive to me at all. They’re not trying to get to the better situation or better solution. I think that’s why we have a group of people thinking deeply about these issues and trying to come up with recommendations and solutions. I think if you’re serious about it, then that’s what you do. Anybody can make a flyer; it’s harder to make a solution.”

In terms of working together to find a solution in which everybody can feel safe and cared for, members of the UC Davis Cops Off Campus group said they are not interested in participating in the task force, claiming that task forces enable police and ultimately lead to increased funding and resources—outcomes that they feel are counterproductive to abolition.

“Some of the most highly visible instances of police violence—such as in Minneapolis—were committed by police departments that had been through extensive reform processes,” said Dr. Seeta Chaganti, an English professor and Cops Off Campus member, via email. “Deciding to join these conversations suggests that there is some good way that the conversation could go that would somehow produce the end of policing, but the evidence does not suggest that this would be the case. Aligned with the intercampus faculty group UCFTP, I take a position of nonparticipation in task forces.”

  Rich concurred with this sentiment, and, consistent with the language of the flyer, suggested that obstruction rather than simple nonparticipation is the preferred mode of group members’ interaction.

In the discussion of previous UC-systemwide policing task forces, which the UC Davis Cops Off Campus group views as repetitive and futile, May said he thinks task forces are effective and strongly disagrees with the idea that task forces are a tool of the administration.

“I think [task forces] can be a useful tool to make subsequent changes,” May said. “I don’t know what happened in those other years before I came, and I’m not going to take any responsibility for that.” 

Recently the task force has held an ongoing series of town hall meetings to bring more voices to the table. Members of the Cops Off Campus group have declined to participate. 

Students that did participate in the task force’s town hall expressed opinions in contradiction to those of these vocal critics, even expressing a desire for increased police presence on campus.

UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow attributed participants’ distaste for task forces to their being symbolic of the status quo. He said that their fear is that defunding, disarming and abolishing the police will not be answered with yet another task force. However, Farrow is very optimistic about May’s use of the task force mechanism to effect change.

Farrow said that, unlike a city police department, UCDPD, the smallest police department in the UC system, is already quite innovative and proggressive with respect to its composition and the roles and presentation of its employees. 

“The majority of my employees are actually Aggie Host—they’re actually students, not police officers,” Farrow said. “We also have police officers who work the core of the campus in plain clothes. They just have a polo shirt on that says UC Davis police. They’re unarmed. We’re trying to change the way we go about our business, so just seeing us on campus doesn’t trigger people.” 

The Aggie Host Security program employees are 120 students that provide services like Safe Ride. They escort students home from late-night classes, drive the wheelchair van and patrol sporting events. 

 “I am trying to hire a police department that is very reflective of the campus,” Farrow said. “I think the difference [between on and off-campus law enforcement] would be that your police department is mainly made up of students who understand the campus and college life. They really buy into the service philosophy. The philosophy is that I don’t think we’re there to police you. That’s not our job. Our job is that we’re there to protect you and to make sure that you can participate in and take advantage of everything the university has to offer.”

Farrow views his department as one that is already in motion away from that of a traditional enforcement unit. Farrow said abolition is an incomplete plan. 

“You have to be careful when you call for the complete abolition of policing,” Farrow said. “What are you going to put in its place? What does that look like and who is it going to be?”

Among abolitionists, students and faculty on the UC Davis campus have worked for a long time to answer these essential questions, according to members of the Cops Off Campus group.

 “Abolitionists have, for years, offered numerous other possibilities for addressing situations of crisis and for repairing harm and injustice,” Chaganti said.  “I would encourage everyone to take opportunities to learn more about transformative justice and community care and accountability as alternative solutions that would address their safety concerns.”

Chaganti also noted the historical implications of police officers in the U.S. 

“The police in the U.S. carry a terrible history; police forces were formed to capture escaped enslaved persons and reinforce the notion of people as property, as well as to suppress labor strikes,” Chaganti said. “Wouldn’t we want something without such a horrifying legacy in situations where folks need help?”

Cops Off Campus members, May and Farrow agreed that students, faculty and staff need to both feel and be safe on campus. Part of feeling safe, especially for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) members of the community, will require the administration and police force address the existing and well-warranted fear of police in general, according to Farrow. Ideally, there should be trust between the protectors of the community and those whom they serve, but it is clear that this goal has not been reached on the UC Davis campus, according to Rich.

“I believe that UCPD makes BIPOC students feel unsafe on our campus,” Rich said. “Surveys at the campus and systemwide level have shown this repeatedly, and on an anecdotal level, it’s something a number of my students have shared with me, especially in the past year.”

The lack of trust stems from a flawed history which cannot be erased. The UC system isn’t devoid of brutal instances of police force, such as the infamous pepper spray incident by UCDPD that occurred on UC Davis’ campus nearly a decade ago, which the university isn’t proud of. May said that students should understand that the other notable instance of use of force against students (the Picnic Day 2017 altercation), was committed by the City of Davis Police, who are not under the jurisdiction of UC Davis.

Both May and Farrow said that there have only been a small number of complaints or incidents in both of their respective terms. 

“We don’t arrest students,” Farrow said. “I don’t do anything where we really involve ourselves negatively with any of our students. We’ve had no use of force on a student in five years. I’ve only had like three to four complaints total from every interaction that we have on the entire campus—not from students, by the way, from other people.”

 Although May and Farrow did not hold their current positions during the pepper spray incident, in which students were the targets of police violence, there have been more recent incidents of force by UCDPD in both the tenures of May and Farrow, including a 2019 incident at the UC Davis Bookstore. May said that the “non campus-affiliate” involved didn’t file complaints against UCDPD and was put into a restorative justice program.

The possibility of abolition hasn’t been completely dismissed and ignored, according to May. But, he shut down faculty’s call to immediately disband UCPD for now, explaining that there are major holes in the abolitionist approach; he also said their subsequent vision for community safety is already closely aligned with the campus safety model that UC Davis is working toward.

“I have an open mind,” May said. “We talked about abolition. Abolition is a possibility, but we have to be prepared for the consequences of abolition, which means we don’t eliminate police from the campus, there just are other police that are out of our control. Police officers from other jurisdictions. As I said before, I just don’t think that’s a good solution.”

Looking forward, the task force made eight initial recommendations on Jan. 29, including increased training for the public—not the police—that is intended to “educate members of the public on the basics about the campus police department.” The task force will make their final recommendation in June, after being granted an extension of the initial December deadline. Although flyers posted by Cops Off Campus suggest that the group demands immediate action, members acknowledge that truly making systemic change is a difficult process that realistically may not occur instantly.

“It’s important for there to be room for a spectrum of ideas even within the abolitionist position about whether the strategy is a gradual transition or a demand for an immediate end,” Chaganti said. “I feel that even though that latter end of the spectrum will sound unrealistic or threatening to many, it needs to exist as a point on the spectrum, speaking to urgency, creating the difficult but necessary momentum.”

There is common ground among all parties in that they share a genuine desire for a system that is better for all.

“The reality is that many people already are very unsafe at the hands of the system that we have; abolition represents a genuine effort to make things better for everyone,” Chaganti said. “Everything I’ve said here indicates a major learning and restructuring process for everyone (including for me, I know), and a lot of work and working together and that will be true no matter what the timeline.”

May said he hopes that restructuring and reimagining safety is a conversation that all groups can have together. 

“If you come to the table with a genuine desire to make the environment better, expressing whatever concerns that you have and trying to look for solutions to those concerns that are constructive, I think we can reach that common ground,” May said.

Chaganti said that abolishing the police is inextricably tied to a larger abolitionist project that is fundamentally centered around dismantling oppressive systems and learning to care for each other as a community.

“I think for a lot of abolitionists, the term means something bigger than just police and prisons,” Chaganti said. “You hear the phrase ‘abolitionist horizon’ a lot; a horizon means something that’s always there, shaping the ways you navigate the world even if it’s not fully attainable. It’s within that structure that I understand the work of reimagining how campus communities could be set up.”

Written by: Rebecca Gardner — campus@theaggie.org

This story was updated on March 22.