Last week, students at the University of Illinois voted in favor of a non-binding referendum to divert funding from the U of I Police Department (UIPD) to other resources:
Should the University of Illinois administration and University of Illinois Board of Trustees reallocate 25% of funding from the University of Illinois Police Department toward resources for students, workers, and community members via a participatory budgeting process?
This referendum is an extension of the ongoing discussions instigated by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year. Defund UIPD, a student group leading the discussion about abolition, has been advocating for changes to UIPD. Though this referendum is non-binding — it won’t result in any direct changes — we hope that administrators on campus are at least listening.
We support the students who want this funding to be reallocated. We support the Black and Brown and Asian and Jewish students, staff, and faculty who do not feel safe on campus and who need solutions beyond policing.
The police are the tool by which white supremacist and classist and discriminatory cultures and policies are enforced. Police forces were created from slave patrols, groups of men who violently hunted Black people (or their bodies) in order to enslave them.
In January, Illinois Newsroom published two incredibly well researched articles by Lee V. Gaines that outline the Defund UIPD movement, the demands of the students, and UIPD’s response to it all. We aren’t going to regurgitate those articles here, but there are a couple of points worth noting (emphasis ours):
Between 2016 and 2019, UIPD arrested more than 3,700 people, according to data obtained via a Freedom of Information request. These arrests include everything from traffic tickets, ordering them to appear in court but releasing them on the scene to physically taking them to jail. Broken down by race, Black people account for about 29% of total arrests, while white people make up 42% of arrests; Asian individuals make up 22% of arrests and Hispanic people account for only about 6% of total arrests.
But during the same time period, more than half (54%) of the 576 people physically taken to jail by UIPD were Black — while only about a third (34%) were white. Black students, however, make up only about 7% of the student body on the campus, and Black people account for about 12% of the metro population, according to Census estimates.
Black people are disproportionately represented in these numbers; it’s no wonder Black students do not feel safe on campus. (You can see all of the numbers on the UIPD website.)
Black students have always been able to enroll at the U of I, but that doesn’t mean they were welcome on campus. They were not permitted to live on campus until 1945, and “were not allowed to eat on campus or at nearby restaurants into the 1960s, and were often refused service by Campustown and Champaign-Urbana merchants.” While the discrimination against Black students is perhaps most visible, we know that the framework of white supremacy, later exacerbated by the racist mascot, created hostile enviorments for all historically marginalized and underrepresented groups.
It’s not just Black students who have had negative interactions with UIPD. In 2016, officers entered Associate Professor Erik McDuffie’s African American Studies class, while class was in session, to investigate a stolen cell phone. While it might seem innocuous to track a cell phone to a classroom and “investigate,” it’s not. These are armed police entering an educational space, a space where students have made themselves vulnerable to learning and sharing and making connections with the course content, other students, and the professor. In this instance, a Black professor and his classroom full of students — some Black students, no doubt — were abruptly reminded that they do not have authority over their bodies in that space on the U of I campus.
What would it look like for the U of I to reallocate funding to health care and services that are needed by students, staff, and faculty? Could some of that funding not better serve food insecure students (and staff and faculty), or address poverty on campus? Are there enough mental health resources on campus, especially in light of the difficulties students face in terms of the pandemic, and rising abuse toward marginalized and minority communities on campus? There are opportunities for the U of I to invest resources in addressing the root causes of the “crime” on campus, instead of responding to the behavior after the fact or seeking it out by stereotyping people.
Though most formalized police forces on college and university campuses have only been a thing since the 1960s and 70s, the UIPD has existed since 1911. The department shifted in the wake of the social unrest and calls for racial and social justice in the 1960s when students occupied the Electrical Engineering Building in 1969. The National Guard was called and according to accounts in this article, officers felt they needed “to take back the building."
Despite it’s 100-plus year history, UIPD has only been accredited with the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program (meeting state and national standards for policing) since 2012 — that’s only nine years. It is worth noting that in February, UIPD met Tier Two level accreditation for the third time since 2012. Does that accreditation forgive or justify the department’s and officers’ behaviors? Most certainly not. In the decade, we’ve become more familiar with what passes as “good policing” in this country, and it’s lacking. Here, just two years ago, a UIPD officer was arrested for seven accounts of misconduct, including sexual assault.
There are some who will argue that the campus police are necessary to protect the billions of dollars worth of equipment and research and materials on campus. Sure. There is certainly some need for that, though most (if not all) campus buildings are locked in some capacity. Is that sort of theft really an issue? The log of arrests and tickets doesn’t seem to indicate so. Instead, it points to a lot of traffic violations and literal policing of “vice,” a direct line from the priorities of the U of I’s first police officer and later UIPD Chief Pearl “Pete” Adams, who regularly stopped students and staff for walking on the grass and smoking. As UIPD developed in the early 20th century, “theft and the specifically undefined crime of "vice" continued to be of concern to UI trustees through the 1960s.”
What is the intended purpose of UIPD? What is the lived experience of those who regularly encounter UIPD? Is there a way for the U of I to actually hear student feedback and reallocate funding to the programs they are saying they need? There is much work to be done to make the U of I campus a safe space for everyone. Many students are saying they do not feel safe. Many more say they want their tuition dollars to fund programs that provide them with actual support. It’s incumbent on U of I administrators to reflect on those aforementioned questions and start listening to the students who are footing the bill.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.