Can Campus Police Eliminate Racial Profiling?

Racial profiling exists in campus policing nationwide. Colleges can move toward racially just policing practices by taking some critical steps.

portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.

Published August 30, 2022

Reviewed by Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D.

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Can Campus Police Eliminate Racial Profiling?
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After the 2020 protests and unrest against racist legacies and anti-Black policing practices, a shift in racial consciousness seemed to emerge. Company leaders, college administrators, and politicians nationwide presented plans to address racial bias and discriminatory practices within their communities. Two years later, we take stock of what changed and the issues that remain.

Most of us know that colleges and universities hire security teams and armed police officers to guard and protect their campuses and students. After the country's so-called racial reckoning, the weight of racial bias continues to pose an important question about policing on college campuses.

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How does racial profiling impact students in higher education environments?

Campus police are meant to serve as pillars of justice and safety. Unfortunately, racial profiling — the discriminatory practice of suspecting and targeting individuals for crimes based on race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin — also serves a consistent role in campus policing.

Naturally, practices of racial profiling have an impact on students. The elimination of racial profiling from campus policing is critical and requires an understanding of the past in order to create meaningful and lasting change.

History of Policing on College Campuses

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Yale University began policing its New Haven, Connecticut, campus with two armed officers in 1894. Since then, policing on college campuses has become commonplace.

Throughout the 1900s, many colleges and universities established security teams to patrol their campuses. Laws authorizing schools to hire security officers and create police forces popped up in the mid-1900s. Student protests also increased at this time, boosting a desire to control campus actions.

State laws soon authorized public institutions to form their own campus police departments. Officers received training directly from local police agencies.

In 1990, the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act required that higher education institutions establish a campus security policy and distribute reports of all crimes committed on campus. Renamed the Clery Act in 1998, the law now requires schools to also issue crime alerts, provide a daily crime log, and host educational programs about crimes committed on campus.

As the government increased regulations of campus policing, colleges and universities engaged in policing practices that further imitated community police agencies. Military-style uniforms led to military practices of surveillance and weaponry use.

College campuses grew, displacing families from neighboring communities. As the borders between campus life and local neighborhoods blurred, an uptick in campus policing resulted.

The idea of making campuses safer by protecting students from the communities around them, particularly in cities with high populations of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), further rooted campus policing in racial-profiling practices.

Students Experience Racial Profiling

As noted by the U.S. Department of Justice, racial profiling is more than just a public perception. Its pervasiveness exists nationwide. Racial profiling discriminates against individuals based on outward appearances. This practice leads to a disproportionate number of police interactions and arrests of people of color.

Students are pushing back against discriminatory police practices on campuses and are demanding changes to campus police policies. In a recent survey, 46% of students said campus police officers make them feel safer. However, only 37% of Black students feel the same way. And, 1 in 7 Black students noted that campus police actually make them feel less safe.

A Black student at Smith College, Oumou Kanoute, rang the alarm on racial profiling after being confronted by campus security while eating in her dorm lounge. Smith's president issued an apology, noting the connections between the incident and racism, but also stated that the interaction did not violate any school policies. The ACLU identified that Smith's policies do not support BIPOC students who are racially profiled.

In May 2022, the women's lacrosse team at Delaware State University, one of the country's historically Black colleges and universities, requested a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into a traffic stop of their team bus. The stop led to a drug search of the students' belongings. Discrepancies between the sheriff's account of the stop and body cam footage highlight a level of profiling by the officers.

As the government increased regulations of campus policing, colleges and universities engaged in policing practices that further imitated community police agencies. Military-style uniforms led to military practices of surveillance and weaponry use.

The University of Southern California (USC) found evidence of racial profiling in an examination of the school's campus police force. In its own study, USC found that Black and Latino students were disproportionately stopped by campus police.

Over 30% of USC campus police stops in 2019-2020 were of Black people, but the Black student population at USC is less than 6%. Similarly, over 45% of stops were of Hispanic students, while Hispanic and Latino/a students make up just 15% of the school population.

An open letter by Northwestern University faculty members in the African American Studies Department exposed the disproportionate number of police stops of Black students. In 2019, Black students made up 5.6% of the school's student body but accounted for 42% of campus police stops.

6 Strategies Toward Transforming Campus Policing

Racially just campus policing supports safe learning and living environments through equitable practices. It is a concept not yet in existence, but one that police forces should take active efforts to move toward.

Eliminating racial profiling from campus policing requires intention and transparency. Colleges can take steps toward creating racially just police forces that improve interactions with all students.

1. Create an anti-bias or anti-profiling security strategy. Strategies can improve clarity and advance officers toward a common goal. Creating clear policies that dictate anti-discrimination practices can help establish a foundation for racially just campus policing.

2. Change campus police training. To move toward a more racially just police force, colleges and universities must change how officers are trained. Reducing or removing military-style training programs, increasing de-escalation training, and including anti-bias training can improve racially just policing practices.

3. Create alternative mental and behavioral health responses. Establish alternative campus response methods for mental, behavioral, and substance misuse-related needs. Allow students to access these services without needing to first go through campus police.

4. Collect discrimination complaints. Create easy and accessible ways for students to file complaints about discriminatory actions by campus police. Prioritize the need to understand experiences of bias, racial profiling, and discrimination by students to improve campus safety.

5. Eliminate the use of military weapons. The use of military weapons — pepper spray, grenade launchers, armored trucks, semiautomatic rifles — on college campuses can create discord between students and campus police. These weapons have been used during campus protests and other events, causing harm to students and jeopardizing relations with campus police.

6. Diversify campus police forces. No easy feat, diversifying the officers who patrol college campuses can improve connections between students and campus police. Reflecting the population of students and the surrounding community also supports inclusivity.

Frequently Asked Questions About Campus Policing

Why do campuses have their own police? true

Most college campuses have their own police forces to protect students and school property. Schools can establish their own campus police departments, hire police officers, and institute their own policies. Having individual campus police departments allows colleges to oversee campus police independently.

What is the difference between university, city, and state police? true

University, city, and state police departments can overlap in many ways. City and university police departments may take part in the same officer-training programs and even patrol similar areas near a college campus. State police can patrol larger areas and investigate crimes across the state.

University, or campus, police may refer specific criminal cases to city or state police departments for further investigation or punishment.

How does racial profiling affect communities? true

Racial profiling affects communities in various ways. The practice of targeting individuals based on race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality is discriminatory.

Racial profiling can cause mistrust of law enforcement and create division between community members and police officers. This separation can lead individuals and communities to rely on other methods of safety and security.

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