Public safety board calls for Stanford to ‘reimagine’ campus policing

July 21, 2021, 1:02 p.m.

The Community Board on Public Safety issued recommendations on Wednesday calling for the “reimagining” of public safety at Stanford by reducing the presence of armed officers on campus and removing armed officers from responding to most mental health crises.

The recommendations come amid a nationwide debate over the role of policing, and as members of student activist group Abolish Stanford have called on the University to end policing on campus.

Stanford officials will now deliberate whether to adopt the Board’s recommendations, which are more in line with the stance of activists than the University’s current approach.

The data in its first annual progress report shows that people of color on campus are disproportionately targeted by the police, though the Board caveated that the numbers may be skewed by the disparity between the demographics of people on campus at any given time and the demographics of Stanford affiliates.

According to the report, Latino vehicle operators were cited and arrested at significantly higher rates in contrast to the proportion of Latino students, faculty and staff. In addition, Black vehicle operators were stopped at twice the rate of their representation in the community, while field interviews of Black people were disproportionately higher than other racial groups.

The report’s release, however, comes nearly two months after its expected release date. The University initially stated that the Board’s annual report would be released “by no later than June 1 of each year.”

Abolish Stanford criticized the delayed timing of the report’s release in a statement, calling it “deliberately timed so that it could have minimal influence on the University’s budget allocation process for the 2021-2022 academic year.”

The activist group cited the allocation of $24.6 million to the Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) in the University’s 2021-22 budget without increased funding for mental health supports. 

University spokesperson Dee Mostofi said in a statement that the Board operates independently and has “no connection to, or knowledge of, the University budget process.” She added that it is now the University’s responsibility “to assess and design how the Board’s recommendations can be implemented operationally.”

Mostofi declined to comment on the delayed release of the report.

Empaneled to combat anti-Black racism a week after the murder of George Floyd, the Board has engaged student groups as well as faculty and staff members to understand the traditional nature of public safety on campus and concerns about campus policing.

The Board has “invested tremendous effort in hearing from the community and developing strategies for meaningfully supporting the safety of our community,” University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote in a Wednesday email to the community.

But in the view of Abolish Stanford, the University did not allow students ample opportunity to express their concerns about public safety on campus.

“Students were really afforded only a single town hall to share their thoughts and experiences,” the group wrote, adding that the report “neglects to note that almost every single student who spoke at that town hall championed the abolition of SUDPS; it also overtly ignores the demands of the Black community to abolish policing at Stanford.”

Mostofi, however, wrote that “every effort was made to collect the many perspectives from all aspects of our community during a year-long information gathering process,” adding that students, faculty, staff and campus committees and coalitions participated in “extensive testimony and discussions” to inform the report’s recommendations and findings.

The report contains eight recommendations and principles for responding to feedback collected during the review process. The most significant recommendation calls for a reduction in armed policing, particularly in student-centered areas of campus. 

“Armed policing should be used to the lowest extent appropriate for the circumstance,” said Claude Steele, the board’s co-chair, a professor emeritus of psychology and the former provost of the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. “The idea here is to reduce our approach to policing that involves carrying guns.”

An emergency response unit equipped with lethal weapons would respond to compelling emergencies while most other patrol functions would be managed by non-sworn, unarmed officers. Steele, describing the campus layout as “complicated and varied,” said that dividing campus into zones could accommodate different preferences among community members for the presence of armed officers. 

Another recommendation is that mental health crises should generally be handled by mental health professionals, not armed officers. The University would need to hire employees to manage a new mental health crisis response unit available at any time.

Mostofi described “the need to develop new strategies to respond to mental health crises” as “one of the consistent themes the Board received from the community.”

The report also calls on Stanford to establish a differential response model that would triage law enforcement and mental health professional response, standardize requirements for security services on campus, mandate anti-bias and de-escalation training, implement a feedback system for public safety officers and request the University consider the potential for community members to take over some responsibilities of SUDPS.

Abolish Stanford criticized the report’s recommendations for not adequately addressing community concerns about campus policing. 

“The University did not listen at all to the widespread concerns that SUDPS is a perpetrator of violence and instead allowed them to sit on the Board and provide ‘recommendations’ on how they can do better,” Abolish Stanford wrote. “The myth that police departments will hold themselves accountable has been widely debunked for years, and the Board’s suggested solution of more anti-bias and de-escalation training for officers only further damages our community by attempting to salvage the failing reputation of a rotten system.”

Steele and Patrick Dunkley, the Board’s co-chair and vice provost for institutional equity, access and community, credited SUDPS with supporting the Board’s efforts, providing it with three years of data on field interviews, daily activity reports, arrests and citations.

While the data did illuminate racial disparities in how police detain, arrest and cite individuals on campus relative to the campus population, Steele cautioned that the data is “subject to many alternative explanations,” in part because the Stanford affiliate population is not representative of the population on campus the police interact with on a daily basis.

Though the police disproportionately targeted people of color on campus, Steele explained that some of these interactions are sparked by community members’ calls to public safety. 

“It turns out that half of those are initiated not by SUDPS officers but by community members,” Steele said.

Tessier-Lavigne in his message wrote that “we may need to look at ourselves, as a community, and the reasons we call for police response.”

Dunkley said that he is encouraged by the response of senior administrators to the report. “I feel comfortable that we will move forward with these principles,” he said.  

The next step for the board, the co-chairs said, is to engage with police reform consultants to begin to implement the recommendations, which will occur throughout most of next year “before we start to see changes on the ground,” Steele said. 

Cameron Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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