Letter to the Editor: Divest & Disarm

Students have led the campaign for a more inclusive, safe and integrated campus community — one that by definition can no longer include the presence of police with guns. At the faculty meeting on Tuesday, April 6, Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety John Carter presented proposed changes that were concerning to many. The changes seemed to expand the resources spent on policing through retraining, consultants, body cameras, dogs and new uniforms — clearly an attempt at rebranding to disguise their authority while refusing to consider not carrying guns.

Some faculty concerns are: 

1. Carter appears to be in charge of managing these changes himself when, in fact, a campus-wide committee of diverse constituents should set the course. Across Amherst, departments and faculty members are subject to holistic external review to ensure integrity and excellence. Meanwhile, the Amherst College Police Department is contracting with consulting group Margolis Healy for oversight and facilitation from a senior associate who is police chief at Yale University. Some faculty wonder why we would look for oversight from a representative of a department plagued for decades by widely documented charges of racism against Yale students and New Haven community members alike if our real aim is to create a safe and welcoming campus

2. The main revision Carter proposed is a shift from an entirely armed force to a partly armed force and a number of community service officers. This new category of officer was presented as a “less well-trained” and unarmed officer, someone who might one day want to become a real police officer. If the central needs of students for their health, well-being and safety — as they have told us countless times — come from the staff and resources of the Counseling Center, the Office of Student Affairs, Residential Life and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, then it seems obvious that these leaders — the Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students, Director of Counseling and Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer — should play a leading role in creating the new system, not an ancillary one. 

3. Other faculty were concerned about the implications of some other ideas, such as changing the uniforms of the police so they are less conspicuous, adding body cameras for extra surveillance and accountability and the acquisition of a dog so that students feel more comfortable approaching an officer. What we hear is a lot of money being spent to try to trick and convince students not to be afraid of the police. Personally, I have always found the prominent role of the police on campus to be unsettling and unnecessary. 

4. There are faculty who have taught here since before the police department was armed and believe they should still not be armed. There are faculty who have taught on other campuses where the police were unarmed and believe they should not be armed here.

While this change seems drastic, it is not unreasonable. Is it bold? Yes, because American life for the past 50 years has been defined by the massive expansion of the carceral state — more police, more weapons and more prisons — and less and less accountability. America became “tough on crime” in an era when crime was already on the decline. We now know that police violence and mass incarceration are the greatest civil rights issues of our time. We have an opportunity to be on the right side of history — to right a wrong that is both immediate and historic.

Some people say that Amherst doesn’t have the same incidents of police violence and therefore don’t need to make substantial changes. Just because we aren’t in the headlines — yet — doesn’t mean that students aren’t criminalized because of their Blackness — they tell us about this all the time. Second, If we are already “so good” on race and our police force is such a model, then why don’t we embrace real change? In my five years at Amherst College, I have heard countless stories from students about how racism affects them on campus. In one way or another, they are treated as if they have done something wrong and don’t belong. But they do belong — they worked hard to be here and we invited them in recognition of their accomplishments, talent and promise. Admitting and supporting students is the heart of our mission as a liberal arts college.

Funding and arming the police is not. Colleges and universities created their police forces in the 1960s and 1970s to reassert order in the wake of the era’s protests for civil rights, feminism, gay rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. We look back on those students as visionary leaders who helped the world become a better, more just place than it was before. It is our job now to listen to our students — to stay out of the way of the transformative work they are doing and want us to be a part of. In their April 7th opinion essay, The Association of Amherst Students listed three simple requests: disarm the college police, reduce the size and budget of college police and hire more counselors and mental health professionals. Many faculty support them — I certainly do.

Jen Manion, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of History

Amherst College