On Monday, March 29, Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety John Carter attended the public safety town hall hosted by the Association of Amherst Students (AAS). This meeting occurred on the first day of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd. It has been nearly a year since last summer’s uprisings and nearly as long since the college verbally committed to anti-racism.
The goal of anti-racist work and activism should be to achieve what Derek Chauvin’s trial never can: justice. For George Floyd, justice would mean being alive. But for the longer-term project of anti-racism, practically speaking, justice might mean a number of things. For example, many groups have called for the police to be defunded or abolished. Were George Floyd alive, it would be important for him to feel safe — a function the police do not serve, and cannot serve, as long as they remain the immediate arbiters of life and death that they are in the United States today.
At Amherst, justice requires doing everything within our power to ensure that people live. Justice is prevention. In terms of police, this means disarmament. Last Monday’s town hall demonstrated that the college has not taken sufficient steps to ensure justice for our college community.
The Director of Public Safety shared at length a number of changes that the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) has undergone in the past year. Following the presentation, the AAS presented its position on the updates and its understanding of the needs of public safety for students, staff and faculty of the college.
Towards this aim, the AAS presented the student body’s position, as previously articulated in the Black Amherst Speaks and the Black Student Union’s (BSU) Reclaim Amherst campaign, signed by hundreds of community members. In order for a community-wide sense of public safety to be achieved, we must:
- Disarm ACPD
- Work with the Office of Student Affairs to reduce the responsibilities and size of ACPD
- At least double the number of counselors in the Counseling Center
The Director of Public Safety chose not to take these actions, despite their importance to public safety and justice, and instead presented a number of smaller-scale alterations that may have an impact but not to the extent necessary to protect our community.
One of the changes, an ACPD dog, is emblematic of them all. Like s’mores nights or “Coffee with Cops” programming, these public relations stunts misidentify the problem of policing as a lack of trust. A lack of trust wrongly assumes that the concern lies in relationships. But relationships with police do not prevent them from killing Black people. Nor do “diverse” police forces. Ultimately, these minor changes do not remove the threat of violence and death that ACPD poses by unnecessarily walking around with guns. These minor changes do nothing to keep people alive. That should be our aim.
To be clear, some of the Director of Public Safety’s recommendations do narrow the scope of threats that ACPD poses. However, if students are only in danger of being shot and killed some of the time instead of all of the time, the distinctions are inconsequential. No amount of training mitigates the threat ACPD poses to all students, staff and faculty on campus. Another recommendation, body cameras, as we already know, merely record instances of police violence. They do little to prevent police violence and killings. The only policy that ensures the safety of all students is to disarm ACPD.
While ACPD and the Director of Public Safety refuse to take actions that will remove a threat to students, staff and faculty on our campus, this is not the case at many of our peer institutions. Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College and Swarthmore College, for example, have all disarmed their campus police and instead have campus safety departments. Last year, the Black Student Union met with the Director of Public Safety and shared this information with him. Despite this evidence, he continues to put our community’s lives at risk.
The Director of Public Safety has confirmed the following facts. In the history of ACPD, an ACPD officer has never shot anyone. In the past 60 years, ACPD has only bared arms twice. In its entire history, ACPD has only arrested 26 people. ACPD was unarmed before 1941.
Not only does the weight of the historical record support disarmament, at Amherst, disarmament has historical precedent. Instead of waiting for ACPD to break this pattern and follow the national history and trend of police shooting and killing Black people, we must disarm them before it is too late.
Of the two times ACPD has drawn arms, the most recent occurrence was a 2019 suicide. A 27-year-old man, not believed to be affiliated with the college, came near campus with a gun and the intent to end their own life. From Monday’s presentation, it is clear that ACPD believes that because they had guns, they were somehow better able to handle this situation and come closer to providing justice. Yet despite ACPD and their guns, this person did die by suicide. The available evidence would show that ACPD having guns did not help the person who is now no longer with us and, if anything, likely made their situation worse.
This death comports with the rest of the evidence on this subject matter. Having armed police does little to nothing to prevent shootings or harm from occurring. Police in schools, in general, are so ineffective that some are calling for the complete removal of police from school campuses. Instead, guns serve as escalating mechanisms with the explicit purpose of taking life and placing people in more danger — there is no such thing as a peace-making gun. The only purpose armed police serve is 1) to continue the violent, white supremacist history of policing in this country and 2) to make officers feel safer. It is ironic, then, that the Director of Public Safety chooses a course of action that prioritizes his own officers above the needs of the community he purportedly serves.
The prioritization of police over people is not a new phenomenon. Currently, ACPD has 24 staff members, while the Counseling Center has 12 staff members. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, budgets are moral documents, and based on this evidence alone, it is clear that we ought to be investing more in mental health and less in policing. In the spring of 2018, an Amherst student died as a result of suicide. Had we been investing more in mental health services (that is, prioritizing people over police, at least budget-wise), that student might still be alive.
At the end of Monday’s meeting, a number of things were made clear.
- The Director of Public Safety has presented no evidence supporting the alleged need for ACPD to wield guns and prolong the threat of violence and death. To the contrary, their only evidence is in favor of guns’ obsolescence in our community. ACPD’s responsibilities are almost exclusively bureaucratic; guns are not only unnecessary but continue to threaten violence in situations, like dorm lockouts, where guns make quotidian encounters potentially lethal.
- The Director of Public Safety has waited nearly a year to update the Amherst community about some of its changes and has only done so at the request of the AAS. Despite testimony to the contrary from a number of constituencies, ACPD continues to choose to go against the expressed concerns of the student body. To add further insult, ACPD’s sole proposal going forward is to host more conversations that, to the extent they are necessary, could have happened a year ago.
- The questions the Director of Public Safety and the incoming “CORE group” will be asking do not change the violence at play. The Community Oriented Responsibilities and Expectations (CORE) Advisory Group will review the current campus safety and service model. The campus safety and service model does not need reviewing. The record is clear, in the United States, the police are not a source of protection. The police are something from which we need protection. In the Amherst context, when mental health is the clearest public safety crisis, ACPD’s continued refusal to disarm may be understood as them viewing us as threats from which they need protection.
- Regarding threats, even if someone were to come on campus, as the Director of Public Safety pointed out, the function of ACPD is mostly bureaucratic. Even though it has not been necessary but twice in the past 60 years, if a shooter were to come to campus, we should follow the leadership of our peers in the Five Colleges. They have established emergency procedures with the local police instead of creating a regular rule of potential violence around an imaginary threat.
We would like to make clear that the mandate on public safety to disarm ACPD is neither moral nor sentimental. It is not about trust or polling. Our concern — as should be the concern of anyone whose position is supposed to be with public safety — is about life and death.
To be clear, the AAS’s position is against the prison-industrial complex, which includes the police, as a whole. We acknowledge and applaud the work of the Amherst College Sunrise Movement in its recent victory in the fight to divest from fossil fuels. The college’s new commitment to divesting from fossil fuels is significant but it neglects to comment on the imperative of our divestment from the prison-industrial complex. We look forward to working with Chief Financial and Administrative Officer Kevin Weinman to make this a reality.
After hearing from the Director of Public Safety, we, the Association of Amherst Students, request that the Board of Trustees — at this weekend’s board meeting — vote to disarm ACPD, to continue shrinking ACPD’s size and responsibilities and to, at the very least, double the counselors at the Counseling Center.
We encourage President Biddy Martin to live up to her anti-racist rhetoric and encourage the Board to bring an end to ACPD’s ever-present threat of violence. Our community’s safety is our utmost priority, and for that reason, we call on the faculty to leverage their influence to do the same. We implore you not to wait until it is too late to take action. Serve justice now, while we are yet alive.
The Association of Amherst Students