Discipling the Nation: Teaching the History of Campus Police

By Yalile Suriel

In December 1978, the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin shined a national spotlight on the incredibly rapid rise of University Police Departments. These departments emerged as one of several tools that institutions of higher education used to respond to student uprisingsnational calls for law and order, and to catalyze their role in projects of urban renewal. What was at the time described as a “relatively new and exciting field” quickly became a lynchpin of policing as these departments proliferated in college towns and major cities across the country. This expansion profoundly transformed neighborhoods and reshaped the very heart of university life. 

The Law Enforcement Bulletin, a rich primary source, provides a snapshot of campus policing at the very moment that these departments had “doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled.” The bulletin serves as a useful—and particularly practical—teaching document, precisely because it introduces many of the recurrent themes and narratives that are foundational to the history of campus policing. For example, the bulletin points to the 1960s and 1970s as a key period in the development of these new forces. It also identifies an array of constituencies—university administrators, faculty, students, board of trustees members, and campus police officers themselves—who had to be accounted for in discussions of the expansion and design of university policing. Furthermore, this primary source provides a launching pad into the many topics entangled with the history of campus policing, including: urban renewal, race relations in the post-civil rights era, expanding carceral networks, and how university police forces responded to a tide of resistance to their presence. These intertwined histories reveal, for example, how universities such as the University of Chicago have been a fundamental force in the gentrification and policing of the south side of Chicago. 

This source also allows students to grapple with how to critically read state-produced sources without reproducing the inherent conclusions embedded in the narrative. As The Law Enforcement Bulletin illustrates, university police often prided themselves on having adopted and evolved from “the best” of all worlds and as possessing the “potential for constant responsive growth.” As such, this is a document that encourages students to analyze the origin story that campus police officers have of themselves and to think about the work that their origin story does in legitimizing their continued presence in university space. 

In many ways, the bulletin also opens a conversation into the similarities, perceived differences, or lack thereof between campus police and municipal police. It provides the historical foundation for students to think about the ultimate role and purpose of the campus police forces that likely surround them on their campuses today. Organizations such as Cops Off Campus as well as other coalitions of students, staff, and faculty have drawn serious attention to these questions. The Law Enforcement Bulletin further situates the broader critiques made by these movements in a historical context. Lastly, the fact that the author of the December 1978 article was the Chief of the University of Cincinnati Police Department, a department that in subsequent decades earned national outcry for the murder of Sam DuBose, is yet another reminder that the legacies of these histories continue to play out today. These legacies are playing out at colleges and universities across the country. The 2011 pepper spraying of students at an Occupy Protest by a UC Davis campus police officer, the 2018 outcry when Yale University Police responded to a report of a Black student napping in their common room, and the 2020 revelation that the University of California at Santa Cruz used military surveillance technology to surveil a graduate student strike are all recent examples that call into the question the origin stories and ongoing function of campus police. 

Yalile J. Suriel is an Assistant Professor of universities and power at the University of Minnesota. She is working on a manuscript titled Campus Eyes: University Surveillance and the Policing of Black and Latinx Student Activism in the Age of Mass Incarceration, 1960-1990. Along with co-editors Grace Watkins, Jude Dizon, and John Sloan, Suriel is working on an upcoming edited volume titled Cops on Campus: Critical Perspectives on Policing in Higher Education.

Featured image (at top): The photograph depicts a legion of police officers deploying at the 14th and Clay Streets to greet the arrival of anti-draft demonstrators on a march from the University of California-Berkeley campus during Stop the Draft Week, Oct. 20, 1967. Oakland, CA, Police Dept., Oakland History Room and Maps Division, Oakland Public Library, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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