Departments are carrying out “policy enforcement for social distancing, face coverings” and “court-ordered or administratively ordered quarantine.” Many campus police are increasing their patrols both on and off-campus and partnering with municipal police to shut down student gatherings. Schools like the University of Notre Dame and Boston College have hired details of city or state police to supplement their campus police. Other departments are “actively involved in contact tracing” and investigating the identities of rule-breaking students. Some schools, like West Virginia University, have directed students to call the campus police to report distancing violations.
A guide for campus police published by Johns Hopkins argued “Covid-19 presents an opportunity to bring campus police and security together with health authorities in new ways.” Serving as “the extended eyes, ears, [and] messengers” of social distancing enforcement comes with a range of new powers for these officers, particularly that of campus surveillance.
While it is critical to slow the spread of the virus, it is dangerous to attempt to do so by increasing police powers over campus life. In fact, the history of campus police surveillance shows once these departments receive new powers and equipment, they are loath to give them up. Communities of color on- and off-campus, and Black local residents and students especially, are most likely to experience the consequences.
Universities first started forming small campus police departments 125 years ago. They most closely resembled night watchmen until the postwar boom in student enrollment, when these police forces began to expand their ranks. Campus forces continued to quickly professionalize their departments during the social upheaval of the 1960s, carrying arms, wearing badges, patrolling in squad cars and receiving federal and state grants to supplement their university funding. Administrators charged campus police with suppressing unrest, protecting university property and profiling visitors to campus, often forcing Black, Brown, working class and homeless people off campus grounds.
During the student protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, campus police attempted to quash the political actions of students, particularly Black and Brown organizers, by developing their own surveillance units, sometimes at the behest of university administrators, and sometimes of their own volition. They recorded videos and audio of protests, photographed students for identification purposes and surreptitiously recorded and wiretapped phone calls and conversations using undercover officers posing as students.
They assembled their findings in intelligence files on individual students and organizations. Many departments maintained close working relationships with local and federal agencies carrying out parallel surveillance operations. They shared and traded information with the FBI and other intelligence-gathering agencies, drawing on many campus police officers’ contacts and training from previous careers in municipal and state law enforcement, federal departments, prisons and the military.
As student protests waned in the 1970s, however, these surveillance technologies and external partnerships remained. In fact, during the next two decades, campus police played an important, albeit often overlooked, role in the War on Crime. In the context of a nationwide crime wave panic driven in part by pressure from students and their parents, university administrators and campus departments responded to high profile cases of violence in the 1980s and 1990s by equipping themselves with gear from an emerging cottage industry of campus securitization.
To this end, they oversaw the installation of extensive CCTV, streetlights, emergency call boxes, alarm and ID systems and other measures of dubious effectiveness and at great expense. Security features like Blue Light call boxes have become commonplace fixtures of the college campus landscape.
Many of these measures were marketed as a way to prevent stranger rape, even as campus departments regularly disregarded or even suppressed actual reports of sexual violence. Moreover, countless Black students were (and continue to be) caught in the crossfire of technologies and protocols designed to protect campuses from “city crime spillover.”
Campus police surveillance continued to grow in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Hundreds of campus departments were recruited by the FBI to “to gain better access to insular communities of Middle Eastern students.” Campus officers assigned to Joint Terrorism Task Forces monitored faculty and students and received federal security clearances. What’s more, the security systems for K-12 and higher education institutions began to implement AI-powered surveillance following several mass shootings. These new cameras have transformed the CCTV widely implemented in the 1980s and 1990s “from passive sentries into active observers that can identify people, suspicious behavior and guns, amassing large amounts of data that help them learn over time to recognize mannerisms, gait and dress.”
While still marketed as being for the protection of students from off-campus threats, contemporary campus police surveillance work often turns its eye on the students themselves, particularly those who are already marginalized. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill police used geofencing technology to monitor protests of a Confederate statue on campus in 2017. Earlier this year, police at the University of California Santa Cruz received “military surveillance equipment” from the National Guard to surveil graduate students striking for a living wage.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, new tracking and surveillance technologies have flooded the campus securitization market, including access control systems that create “a digital record of who accessed a space on a specific day or time” and “robots and drones [that] … can provide live video and bidirectional audio.” Perhaps most concerning are a range of new cameras and video content analytics that can conduct facial recognition, count the number of people in a building, determine whether they are wearing masks and record their body temperature.
But the fact remains Black and Brown people, whether local residents, students or faculty and staff, are those most likely to be surveilled and stopped by campus officers. Deploying campus police to enforce a host of new social distancing-related offenses will drive more people into contact with officers capable of seriously harming them.
Many students and local residents across the country are carrying on the legacy of Black student activism from the 1960s by calling for the abolition of campus police. They cite surveillance as a serious concern with campus police power, and note the insufficiency and dangers hidden in proposed reforms. They are even beginning to collect their own information on campus police through the Abolition University Cops Off Campus project.
The history of campus police surveillance serves as a reminder that smaller, more innocuous-seeming forces can have an unexpectedly large reach. The new powers and technologies campus police acquire could last far longer than the pandemic they were created to address.