Contrary to its stated mission, the Stanford University Department of Public Safety contributes to an unsafe, insecure atmosphere which polices the expression and movement of Black students on campus.
Imagine this: it’s the Saturday of week 7 of Winter quarter. Classes are ramping up, finals are looming, and pandemic isolation is taking a heavy toll on your spirit. Suddenly, an AlertSU notification from the Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) flashes across your screen: “Reported Armed Person.” Naturally, this triggers your curiosity (and stress response), so you read on.
The Alert explains that an incident occurred on Feb. 27 at 6:55 p.m. A witness reported seeing “two dark complected males with dark hooded jackets” on Mirada Avenue. They were walking bikes, and one of the suspects reportedly appeared to be carrying a rifle. A police search yielded nothing, and no additional reports about this incident were made. The Alert ends with “support resources for community members,” including a recommendation to lock doors and windows, guidance on reporting suspicious activity, and a reminder about the University’s data encryption policy.
Let’s be clear: this AlertSU notification irresponsibly underplayed the grave implications of the alleged incident for civilians generally and Black Stanford affiliates specifically: it not only sparked confusion and fear but also failed to address the real possibility that racial profiling had occurred.
My reality as a dark-skinned Black person who grew up as part of the Trayvon Generation underpins my understanding of our society’s need to reimagine public safety. I’m far too familiar with stories of trauma, marginalization and injustice etched into Black communities’ collective memory. I hardly ever wear a hoodie when walking outside at night as a precaution against being perceived as the stereotype of the dark and dangerous criminal.
The distinctiveness of this experience was made evident in my conversations concerning the incident and Alert with other students living on campus. Some non-Black students expressed fear about a possible criminal threat, whereas Black students articulated their discomfort with the possible bias involved in the reporting of this incident, frustration over the vague ubiquity of the suspect description and fear of being wrongfully accused had they been outdoors while police conducted a search for the individuals described in the report. These diverging sentiments, coupled with federal data indicating that Black people are less likely than white people to dial 911, reflect distinct experiences in a policing system that assumes white innocence and Black guilt. The racialization of crime consequently reverberates through the (mal)administration of public safety.
Due to the inadequacy of SUDPS and the AlertSU system in administering public safety, Black students have developed an analogous notification system: pre-COVID campus life featured frequent warnings about police presence on campus in group chats and mailing lists specifically connected to the Black community. Black students engage in police avoidance because officers do not serve and protect us — they respond to nebulous fears by enforcing racial discrimination. In fact, the policing system itself rewards bias: A data report found that California law enforcement agencies dismissed more than 98% of racial profiling complaints against officers from 2016 to 2019. As Black students, we are compelled to take public safety –– a term regularly invoked to rationalize unfair policing without making sense of who the public comprises and how their safety is defined –– into our own hands.
At any rate, this recent incident provides insight into a mechanism through which police organizations enact racialized social control: the vigilante-police alliance. Actors within the alliance profile Black civilians as criminals, surveil their movement and cultivate a climate of hostility and suspicion –– all under the veil of “public safety.” Accusers making 911 calls embody the vigilante ethos; their colored representations of situations containing Black subjects not only exploit existing assumptions about criminality but also propagate them by further inscribing the public imagination with the image of the unknown threatening Black criminal. Law enforcement officers, in partnership with members of the public who “fear for their safety,” engage in racial profiling to search for or be wary of suspects. The typification of criminals as Black is used to justify racial profiling and shield those who racially profile from accountability.
Given the history and present reality of racial terrorism in the United States, the disconcerting truth is that police (and vigilantes) possess full discretion to decide who is suspicious. SUDPS and the Stanford community as a whole are not removed from this context: those who leverage their power and privilege to summon the police if they feel “unsafe” are part and parcel of violence enacted against marginalized groups. There is no question that allegations about armed persons on campus must be taken seriously. Even so, we as a campus community must reflect on the role of the suspects’ Blackness in rousing the vigilante-police alliance and whether or not the inclusion of racial descriptors in the Alert added any value to an already vague suspect description. For Black students, the threat of police and vigilante violence is not an abstract discussion topic — it is a lived experience that follows us outside of the classroom (or Zoom call). We all must be cognizant of the lethal consequences of racially weaponized police reporting; the suspects in the Alert may actually be victims –– or survivors –– of racial profiling.
SUDPS is obligated under the Jeanne Clery Act to notify the campus community about crime-related incidents on campus, but the notification pertaining to the alleged armed suspects was sent out at 8:55 pm –– 2 hours after the incident was reported, complicating the argument that the Alert was necessary to protect campus residents from a clear and present danger. SUDPS also has yet to follow up on the Alert or include mental health in its discussion of “support resources.” In thinking about how we can create a safe and welcoming community, we must interrogate who is –– and isn’t –– being served by racialized crime alerts and, more broadly, SUDPS.
Last June, Black student leaders issued a letter to University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne in response to increased police presence on campus. Demands included dismissing non-Stanford police; diverting funds away from the police budget and re-allocating them to mutual aid and basic needs funds; requiring biannual de-escalation training; and increasing transparency. In light of the University’s ongoing $33.5 million project to construct a new Public Safety Building on campus, we must renew the call to restructure and reimagine public safety at Stanford. Public safety protocols should be person-centered –– not system-centered –– and shift away from discriminatory practices and punitive approaches. It should not take a future tragedy for us to enact change. These “armed suspects” could have very well been students carrying tennis rackets and walking while Black.
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