Among some graduate students, concerns arise about police enforcement of social distancing measures, Campus Compact

Sept. 27, 2020, 8:58 p.m.

One evening last month, nine graduate students were wrapping up a masked and socially-distant picnic on the Stanford Oval when they were approached by two armed Stanford police officers. 

The Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) officers said they had received a call about the group and had been instructed by the Office of Graduate Life to break up outdoor gatherings, according to two students present at the Aug. 31 picnic who wished to remain anonymous for fear of University retaliation. SUDPS confirmed to The Daily that officers referenced the compact, but contested that they were acting on a University request. 

Then, students said, the officers threatened future eviction from campus housing. 

“For international students and for anyone on campus, housing is really threatening,” one of the students said.  

The picnic — and the interaction that followed — reflects broader tensions between administrations and students on campus. Some graduate students have raised concerns that police are overzealously enforcing social distancing regulations and the Campus Compact, a commitment to University expectations intended to minimize the spread of COVID-19, contending that police have threatened students with punitive measures.

Amid renewed national debate over the role of policing, some Stanford students are grappling with whether traditional law enforcement mechanisms, like campus police, have a place on college campuses.

The University has said SUDPS will not be the primary organization responsible for enforcing the compact or the zones program. University spokesperson E.J. Miranda declined to comment on specific student concerns about policing and enforcement of the compact, referring The Daily to the revised Campus Compact and Health Alerts sent out on Sept. 4 and Sept. 9. The Sept. 9 Health Alert announced that both indoor and outdoor gatherings of “social nature” for those approved to be on campus would be prohibited per California State order. 

In the case of the Aug. 31 picnic, SUDPS Captain Sgt. Chris Cohendet told The Daily that although the officers referenced the compact, they were responding to a violation of public health orders rather than enforcing Stanford policies.  

“I can’t talk about the compact. That’s not something that our department created or we would enforce,” Cohendet said. “Public safety doesn’t enforce policy, but we enforce the law… and we wouldn’t think that it’s fair to enforce the law when there’s not clarity around it.”

“Civilian Stanford representatives” will enforce the campus zones program, according to the Sept. 4 email. The Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs will enforce the compact through a reporting and review process. 

DPS officers will only become involved in the enforcement of the compact or zones program if “police dispatch is called or if there is egregious and deliberate violation of county or state public health orders.”

Cohendet told The Daily that the department’s primary goal is to educate the public and build trust, rather than arrest people. 

At the picnic, he said, the officers took “an educational approach,” issuing a warning and clarifying nuances of county and state COVID-19 regulations, “because there are some cases where those orders aren’t in alignment.” 

“[The officers] did not detain anybody, collect anybody’s names, information. I think they just merely asked if they were students or not, and the group said that they were,” Cohendet said. “Our deputies proceeded to explain to them just the different types of violations, because it is confusing.” 

The interaction lasted about 10 to 15 minutes, Cohendet said, describing it as “a positive interaction with our student community and educational in nature.”

According to several graduate students, however, this was not an isolated incident. Fourth-year chemical and systems biology Ph.D. student Egan Peltan tweeted last week that police approached him while “shooting hoops alone” on Sept. 1 and later disabled the hoop.

“A #StanfordPoliceState looks like disabling a basketball court,” Peltan wrote. “And threatening to send students to Eviction Panels if they leave their bedroom-offices without ID displayed. What’s your #StanfordPoliceState story?” 

Students are not currently required to display their ID on campus according to a Sept 4 email sent by Furr and Hicks. They wrote that they recognized “the challenges for some members of our community in obtaining ID cards” and wanted to “allow more time for education and awareness building about the campus zones program and for further consultation with university stakeholders.” 

Though “Eviction Panels” do not exist, the compact does outline a Compact Review Panel, which reviews COVID-19 concerns and “may impose a range of consequences” upon students, including “removal from campus.”

“Now it seems like they’re cracking down all of a sudden,” said Gregory McInnes, a fifth-year biomedical informatics Ph.D. student, adding that he thinks police presence makes “the whole atmosphere feel very restrictive and uncertain.”

McInnes had no direct interactions with police on campus. Part of that “restrictive” feeling, he said, was generated by student outcry on social media. 

“Based on what I’ve seen online, it seems like Stanford has taken a much stricter approach, but that’s just my impression from Twitter,” McInnes said. 

Multiple revisions made to the compact have created confusion among graduate students, he added, amplifying existing concerns about policing. 

“It’s been sort of a group effort to decipher what’s in the contract,” McInnes said. “Are we going to get evicted for, I don’t know… Talking to somebody while I walk my dogs?”

SUDPS said they approach individual students only upon community calls for service. Cohendet urged students to examine reasons why community members call the police, rather than criticizing officers for responding.  

“We are responding because someone has dialed 9-1-1 or contacted the police department to respond and to determine what is going on, and whether there is a [Public Health Order] violation,” Cohendet said. “So maybe the question should be directed at the community: What are they seeing that is causing them to call the police, in their calls for service that our deputies are responding to?”

In the past weeks since approved undergraduates have returned to campus, there have been several reports of large gatherings in violation of the compact. SUDPS is currently processing The Daily’s requests for data on the number of calls regarding COVID-19 policy violations on campus that officers responded to since the beginning of September. While some students say that they notice an increased police presence on campus, SUDPS officers stated that their staffing levels have not increased due to COVID-19 measures. Yet because distancing measures regulate the minutiae of daily life, some students say, the pandemic has emboldened SUDPS officers to approach students at any time.

Second-year law student K.C. Shah said an officer recently approached him while he was sitting outside Escondido Village Graduate Residences (EVGR) to question whether he lived there. 

“It’s unclear as to whether the officer would have even asked me [where I lived] if I wasn’t someone of color,” Shah said. 

He said he feared that compact enforcement would resort to “back-of-the-envelope” tactics, relying on assumptions “that traditionally [fall] on minority groups.”

One of the graduate students advocating for compact revisions, third-year chemistry, engineering & medicine for human health Ph.D. student Justin Donnelly, said he started the hashtag #StanfordPoliceState after he “noticed an uptick in the number of police officers around my lab space.”

Donnelly said he found compact enforcement “worrisome,” though he was not personally stopped by police. As a student living off-campus “not under threat of eviction from Stanford,” and as a white man, he said he “felt like [he] should speak out.”

“I understand that some may find the hashtag to be provocative, but I also think it got people’s attention and I don’t think it’s that far off,” Donnelly said. “They’re doing ID checks, they’re dispersing gatherings of two or more people.”

In response to allegations of racial profiling and a “police state,” SUDPS officers said that police are responding to community calls for service. 

SUDPS is “aware of the possibility that persons of color may be perceived as suspicious in comparison to Caucasian individuals,” Cohendet said. “That is why we endeavor to ensure we understand what behavior is occurring.” 

Some students fear that a “hostile” environment and strictly enforced distancing codes will impact mental health on campus. For many, graduate school can already be isolating, working long hours primarily alone. 

“You can spend most days kind of just working alone,” McInnes said. “It does seem like, you know, these little picnics and things like that were a way for people to sort of de-stress and socialize in a reasonably safe way.”

Some graduate students viewed outdoor and socially-distanced gatherings as crucial to building support networks. Now, they say, the compact has thrown those networks into doubt. 

“This kind of human contact is essential for well-being and managing graduate student stress in particular,” said the second student from the picnic. “For Stanford, to impose such unreasonable and unempirical restrictions on experiences is extreme and almost inhumane.”

Esha Dhawan contributed reporting.

Contact Emily Schrader at emilycsc ‘at’

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