University of Minnesota student body President Jael Kerandi could not initially bring herself to watch the graphic video depicting the police killing of George Floyd. Instead, she sprang into action in the hours after his death late last month, writing a letter to university President Joan Gabel demanding the school immediately cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department.
“It was very important that students understood that black lives mattered to the University of Minnesota,” said Kerandi, the school’s first African-American student body president. “Students just don’t feel comfortable with the police on campus.”
Gabel responded within 24 hours, announcing the university would no longer contract with Minneapolis police for large events such as football games and would limit collaboration to “joint patrols and investigations.”
The uprising against police brutality had taken root at Minnesota’s flagship university — and has since spread to colleges across the state and country. Students at the University of Iowa, Ohio State and Northwestern are calling on their schools to cut ties with city police departments. At Harvard and Yale University, student protesters also have demanded their campus police departments be abolished.
Similar pushes are unfolding in Minnesota as student leaders urge their schools to re-evaluate their approaches to public safety.
“I think that young people know there is a very important role for them to play to push us forward,” said Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who studies racism and campus climate. “They have some of the most radical imaginations about what is possible for a world that we would like to live in.”
Josh Bronson, director of training for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said he believes a change in police culture is needed after the death of Floyd.
But while campuses could benefit from a public-safety response team that includes mental health and social workers, Bronson said, police should still be involved in keeping the peace.
“To cut ties [with police] … I understand it but I don’t know that that’s necessarily the solution either,” Bronson said. “I think it’s about being strategic.”
Rethinking campus safety
Student leaders in the Minnesota State system of public universities and community colleges were quick to demand change after Floyd’s death.
The student association LeadMN, which represents 165,000 community and technical college students, called on system Chancellor Devinder Malhotra to review and re-envision Minnesota State’s law enforcement programs and teaching methods. Malhotra followed through, announcing the formation of a work group to do just that.
Students were surprised to learn the four officers charged in Floyd’s death attended a Minnesota State college; the state college system educates approximately 80% of Minnesota police officers through its 22 professional peace officer education programs.
Oballa Oballa, president of LeadMN, said he told Malhotra the system “can’t be silent anymore” on the issue of police violence. “If we see something and we don’t come up with a solution, that thing will repeat,” said Oballa, an Ethiopia native and student at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn.
Students United, which represents students at Minnesota State’s seven universities, released its own list of demands for Malhotra and university presidents. Campus public safety offices should be redesigned with a focus on compassion, equity and harm reduction, the group wrote in its letter to system leaders. And all system institutions should consider severing ties with city and county police that “enable harm and violence,” they wrote.
As a black man, Students United state chairman Ola Abimbola said he has always felt the need to look over his shoulder. He’s been pulled over by police for “all kinds of reasons,” he said, and often worried he would be stopped on his trips to and from the campus library.
College students, many of whom are already struggling with issues such as food insecurity, should not have to worry about racial profiling or excessive force at the hands of law enforcement, Abimbola said.
“Our students deserve a healthy, safe and inclusive environment that is devoid of excessive policing, discrimination, racism,” said Abimbola, who recently graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University.
Back at the University of Minnesota, Kerandi and other students have shifted their scrutiny to the campus police department.
They want the school to establish an advisory board of students and community members to review the University of Minnesota Police Department’s budget and complaints.
‘We have to reimagine’
Kerandi said she would like to see some of the department’s funding diverted to mental health resources and other student support services.
“We have to reimagine if we need police officers that are armed on our campus,” she said.
The university’s police department has 53 sworn officers who carry firearms while on duty, according to a school spokeswoman. The department’s budget in fiscal year 2020 was just north of $11 million.
Not everyone believes campus police deserve such scrutiny. University of Minnesota senior Alyssa Rinelli said she’s had “nothing but great experiences” with campus police.
At times, Rinelli said she has felt unsafe walking home from campus at night. Earlier this month, there were four robberies near campus, one of which was at gunpoint. It is comforting to know that campus police are just a quick call away, she said.
“I’ve definitely felt safer with their presence being there on campus,” Rinelli said.