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Safe on campus?

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Maintaining mental health and wellness will be challenging during this school year. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions kick in again, deepening changes to schools and campus communities. Fraying individual and collective health will be compounded by the unequal treatment and discrimination traditionally experienced in security and policing on university and college campuses.

Many advocate for the security model to be defunded and replaced with alternative modes of campus safety that minimize or abolish altogether the reliance on special constables, policing, and other criminalizing responses (like the Divest/Invest UCLA Faculty Collective). The University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa are examples of Canadian post-secondary institutions that have recently identified the problems, and have planned for changes to policy and implementation.

Assuming without accepting that for now, campus “security” is the model used the majority of the time, where is there room for transformation?

In discussions about reforms to campus safety, certain themes persist:

  • Multi-disciplinary approaches to safety improve service and reduce harm
  • Data collection and data sharing increase confidence while identifying areas needing reform
  • Independent complaint and investigation processes increase accountability

Across the border, the University of California (UC), with its 10 campuses including UC Berkley and UCLA, has experienced a long track record of excessive force used by security and police against protestors and campus communities. The most recent response includes the Cops Off Campus days of action in May of this year. According to these authors, the UC police system statewide has disclosed almost no records to support police transparency or accountability, despite 200 use of force incidents in recent years. Last month, UC released a Community Safety Plan, intended to change the general direction of its approach to the campus environment.

Holistic/pro-health

Also called a “pro-health” model, civilianizing or holistic models are being proposed by UC and across Canada and the United States. Multi-disciplinary crisis teams match the call for assistance or service with the appropriate type of responder and response, including mental health, wellness, and a bias/hate response. The UC Plan envisions that crisis response team members, non-sworn public safety officers, and mental health and social service providers have major roles in campus safety.

Data collection

UC promises a “publicly available” and “systemwide” dashboard for all 10 campuses to be launched by June of 2022. What categories of data will be collected and shared every year? The University says these categories of data will be collected and publicized:

  • Crimes data
  • Use of force
  • Campus safety workforce summary, demographics
  • Stops (compliant with the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act)
  • Complaint data and resolution
  • Calls for service
  • Campus safety fiscal year budget

Accountability

The UC Plan establishes investigation units, independent of the campus police department. Investigators will have access to records and information, and then deliver their reports to the “police accountability body” for “independent review.” The complaint process will be reviewed for fairness, thoroughness, quality, and speed, through a designated full-time position (the same person will also monitor and support the implementation of the UC plan). While it seems that the investigations and reports will still be internal, then, an independent, civilian accountability body will review reports regarding complaints filed against campus staff. No member conducting the review will be a current or former police department employee or an employee of the investigation unit. This body can provide recommendations and will also solicit public input and conduct community outreach.

Here at home, back in July, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) told the province that 10 steps are necessary to end structural or systemic racism in policing. Similar themes are evident in these proposed steps as well.

One direction is to have police services in Ontario collect demographic data, including race-based data, across the full spectrum of policing interactions with the public. This includes race-based data on stop-and-question interactions, charges and arrests, and releases. Moreover, the Commission still urges an early intervention system to flag problem or repeat behaviour by officers or across platoons. The Commission promotes efforts to civilianize police service, and also endorses non-police responses to calls related to mental health, substance use, or homelessness. Notably, the Commission advocates for court or tribunal findings of discrimination against police officers to be appropriately investigated. Investigations of police complaints must also be “independent.”

Elementary and secondary schools partner with police to deal with safety and security as well (with their own purpose, intent, and scope). In the last year, the demands of communities and reimagining wellness and safety resulted in the Toronto, Peel, Hamilton-Wentworth, and Ottawa-Carleton District School Boards ending the presence of police officers at schools. Known as the “SRO,” the School Resource Officer program is another element that the Commission urges be provincially reviewed – and for the Ministry of Education to direct Boards to consult with disability, Black, racialized, and Indigenous communities and determine whether these programs should be deferred and/or discontinued in the meantime.

These developments need to be tracked and evaluated as we enter another COVID-19 school year and our wellness and safety are more paramount than ever.


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