ACPD Responds About Vehicle Unmarking, Community Reacts

In an April 1 email, Chief of Police John Carter responded to criticism over the decision to unmark all ACPD vehicles, expressing regret and requesting input. Students expressed frustration with his response, linking it to the broader trend of the department’s response to calls for change.

ACPD Responds About Vehicle Unmarking, Community Reacts
Students shared how ACPD’s recent response to criticism about unmarking its vehicles reflects its larger pattern of skirting criticism from students. Photo courtesy of Caelen McQuilkin '24E.

In an email sent to faculty, students, and staff on Friday, April 1, Chief of Police John Carter issued a response to criticism over his recent decision to unmark all Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) vehicles. He expressed regret for not consulting with the community prior to making the decision, and requested that any individuals with input on the situation share their thoughts either directly or through an official pathway.

Carter’s email was prompted by concerns about the department’s newly unmarked police vehicles, as voiced by students and other community members in an article in last week’s issue of The Student. Students shared that the inability to tell which cars belonged to ACPD did not increase their feelings of safety. They also expressed that Carter’s focus on the visual presence of ACPD exemplified a refusal to contend with more sweeping demands for police reduction, disarmament, and abolition.

In his email, Carter wrote that the decision was based on the belief that “fewer marked police cars on campus would lessen the anxiety that they produce for some students.” He noted that input from the community will be used to aid in the decision on whether to replace the markings on the cars, and affirmed his commitment to making the campus one where all community members feel safe.

Some were heartened by Carter’s openness to students’ perspectives in reconsidering the decision. “Asking for feedback and [Carter] giving his explanation and making a way to communicate with him is a step at redressing this mistake, which is good,” said Victor Bowman-Rivera ’22.

Others viewed Carter’s efforts differently. “The school is always asking for us to go to them,” said Mollie Hartenstein ’23. “The idea that we have to make time out of our day to tell the chief [we disagree] when he knows it is idiotic,” she said. “The idea that we have to make time for them, and not the other way around, is actually just … backwards.”

“I was really surprised to see that [Carter] was himself seemingly surprised at the reaction,” said Michaela Brangan, visiting assistant professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought. “He said, you can either email me directly, or you can do it through these other channels … and that’s how we will receive your feedback as legitimate. But there’s already the series of articles … isn’t that feedback?”

Marina Maulucci, a former Valentine Dining Hall employee who now works as a contractor for the college, shared similar sentiments. “It’s gaslighting in my opinion,” she said. “They’re just acting like the anti-police sentiment hasn’t been clearly argued and rallied for. It’s clear what the students want, and it isn’t police at all.”

Maulucci’s comment highlights a sentiment that ACPD decision-making is not taking into account widely shared student opinion.

There have been frequent student demands for change in the department over the past few years, many of which have called for structural changes to ACPD. Amidst a wave of national activism related to police brutality in summer 2020, the Black Student Union (BSU) and Black Amherst Speaks released the campaign to Reclaim Amherst, which demanded the disarmament of all ACPD officers, writing that “as long as ACPD is armed, Black students will not be safe.”  

Around the same time, student organizers made conversations around abolishing ACPD more public. In June 2020, a petition calling for the abolition of ACPD began circulating as the result of further-reaching student activism. It garnered over 200 signatures from students and alumni.

On April 14, 2021, following the police killing of Daunte Wright, the BSU officially demanded the abolition of ACPD. The AAS also updated its position on campus safety from reducing and disarming to abolishing the department.

In response to these demands, the administration and ACPD introduced the Community Safety Officer (CSO) and Community Safety Assistant (CSA) positions to handle incidences in dorms, increased the number of mental health counselors, reduced the number of campus police officers, shifted medical crises responsibilities from ACPD to Amherst College Emergency Medical Services (ACEMS) and the Office of Student Affairs, and adopted a comfort dog.

Carter described these changes in a statement to The Student last week: “The focus of our certified police officers has shifted to public safety administrative tasks, community engagement and investigations.”

The changes were made following a number of open listening sessions hosted through the Campus Safety Advisory Committee, that were tasked with “generating options for a community safety model that will support the range of needs within our community,” according to its website.

Some, however, viewed the changes as still not in line with student demands. For example, at the beginning of this fall, students expressed confusion and concern over the CSA and CSO roles, citing a high level of surveillance. Many also viewed the department’s adoption of a comfort dog as a shallow and inconsequential change, distracting from the essential issue with the department.

Several interviewees noted a cyclical pattern of students calling for change, ACPD asking for feedback, and then making a shift that seemingly does not seriously consider said feedback, such as avoiding disarmament.

“Saying you want to listen to students is amazing,” said Jay Baldwin ’25. “But I feel like when they do listen to students, they don’t do anything with it. ... They want to listen to the students until the students have something to say that they don’t agree with.”

Kamil Mouehla ’25 emphasized that students should be included in decision making processes in a way that goes beyond just offering input. “Decision-making, especially when it comes to power-wielding individuals, should be bilateral and the most important agent in such an important process is the students,” he said.

Edmund Kennedy ’23E pointed out the contradiction at the root of the disconnect. “The interests are different … Historically, [ACPD is] seldom needed or respond to calls where their presence is needed. However, I imagine they like their jobs and want to keep them.”

A student who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for their personal situation had similar thoughts. “Of course they’re never going to think policing is scary and dangerous, because that’s diametrically opposed to what they’re taught, which is that they are the good guys, and they keep us safe,” he said. “If they thought police were the bad guys, they couldn’t be police officers anymore.”