From the Community | Abolish Stanford: We need care, not cops

March 18, 2021, 8:05 p.m.

As organizers fighting for abolition and liberation on campus and across the Peninsula, we read Ari Gabriel and Julia Thompson’s article on the systematic mismanagement and underfunding of CAPS with a familiar sense of frustration, outrage and shame. Frustration, because Stanford’s mismanagement of mental health resources is neither new nor surprising; outrage, because this mismanagement has directly affected our very own peers and closest friends; shame, because we know we can do better.

Stanford’s failure to adequately fund and support CAPS is inseparable from the University’s punitive, carceral approach to mental health. Instead of providing students undergoing mental distress with the support they need, Stanford has consistently policed its students, often causing more harm and trauma in the process. CAPS undeniably bears part of the blame: Counselors are often “under-trained,” and CAPS’s Telehealth service has been overwhelmed during the pandemic. Yet, as Gabriel and Thompson’s article notes, these are also indications of deeper problems that arise from systematic underfunding. Though CAPS’s approach to student mental health crises is not without its issues — the current 5150 process, for instance, discourages many students from seeking help — many also stem from a lack of institutional support.

CAPS’s underfunding and mismanagement are indicative of the University’s broader approach to mental health and policing. Despite years of student complaints about police involvement in mental health crises, the University has consistently treated students undergoing distress as problems to be removed, not people in need of care. More alarmingly, the University recently completed construction of a new, $33.5 million “public safety” building, despite ongoing protests from the broader community. Even though contact with police only increases the likelihood of trauma, and for years students have been begging for a more empathetic approach to mental health, Stanford refuses to listen. The message is loud and clear: Stanford University is more invested in policing its students than it is in responding to their crises with compassion. 

Stanford’s prioritization of carceral approaches to mental health has had devastating real-world consequences. Just two weeks ago, a Daily article reported that police responded to a mental health crisis carrying a gun with rubber bullets. Though rubber bullets are technically considered to be a “less-than-lethal force,” these weapons are still — as the article notes — known to “disable, disfigure, and kill in short range.” The official Stanford police department statement claimed that “sometimes less-than-lethal force is deemed necessary by police forces when an individual has the intent to harm themselves or others” — an assertion that speaks volumes about Stanford’s priorities.  At a time when service workers remain without pay continuance, students struggle to meet basic needs and CAPS’s infrastructure is overburdened, Stanford continues to divert its resources to carceral structures. Not only does the University fail to recognize that students undergoing mental health crises are people who need care, but it treats mental health crises as problems to be violently policed out of existence. 

Tragically, such kinds of carceral responses to mental health crises are neither new nor unique to Stanford. Since 2015, nearly a quarter of individuals killed by police officers in the United States have had a known mental illness. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter. Even those who survive initial encounters with police are still subjected to the violence of the carceral state: As of June 2017, 37 percent of people in state and federal prisons have been diagnosed with some type of mental illness; the number increases to 44 percent in locally-run jails. Evidently, individuals with untreated mental illness need care, not policing, yet Stanford continues to do the opposite. While the incident at Stanford ended without escalating to physical violence this time, SUDPS’s continued direct involvement in mental health crises sets a dangerous, troubling precedent for Stanford’s broader approach to student mental health — one that not only fails to help already-distressed students, but that further traumatizes them in the process. 

At Abolish, we have made clear our demands to Stanford from the very beginning: Defund and dismantle carceral systems on campus and reinvest those funds in structures of care. In the absence of institutional commitment to support for mental health services and appropriate support and treatment for all students, we also believe it is our responsibility to care for each other. We can do better. 

Contact Abolish Stanford at [email protected].

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