Why I want cozy campus cops

An Oct. 9 Campus article titled “Public safety incident escalates, local police get involved” reported that the first step in Public Safety’s protocol regarding use of force is to arrive at the scene of the disturbance and act as “visual deterrent.” 

The remainder of the article goes on to detail an incident in which Public Safety inappropriately and unjustly pinned a student to the ground for an extended period of time — this abuse of power alone should be grounds enough to serious reevaluate the protocol that led the officers involved to believe that this was an appropriate course of action. In fact, this incident brings to light a slew of structural defects within campus security that demand imminent and radical reform. 

My focus, however, is on this phrase: “visual deterrent.” Stop and think about what this means: the mere physical appearance of Public Safety officers is constructed with a purpose, a purpose that is intended to evoke an emotional response strong enough to discourage students from acting in a particular way. 

Considering that Public Safety officers currently frolic about in the same excessively militaristic regalia worn by your typical American cop, the concept of visual deterrence draws on the same associations as those which are attached to the police. That is deeply problematic. 

In the face of an overwhelming history of ubiquitous police brutality and corruption, the symbolic role of the American police officer has become something explicitly sinister. Invoking the representational power of the police officer’s uniform is an outright scare tactic — one that tends to disproportionately affect those who are historically victimized by the police. 

In general, this means people of color; thus, the practice of outfitting campus security officers in cop costumes is yet another manifestation of the negligence of Allegheny administration with regard to creating a campus environment that is conducive to protecting students of color.

What’s more is that Public Safety and the Meadville Police Department have a close working relationship. As Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Life April Thompson noted in her Oct. 16 letter to the Campus editors, “(i)f it appears that a person is going to engage in a physical altercation, Meadville City Police Department is notified” by Public Safety. 

In this sense, the two agencies are nearly synonymous. One might think of campus security officers as neutered cops, as they have a shared mission yet thankfully are not equipped with guns or other weapons. In actuality, Public Safety officers are essentially on the same level as the rent-a-cops you might see at a shopping mall — so why on Earth have we normalized  dressing them up like real cops? 

It is almost hilarious that their presence is intended to serve as a “visual deterrent” to criminal activity on campus. I say “almost” because it is actually not funny in the slightest that Public Safety operates on the assumption that students will view them with fear and apprehension rather than as the agents of safety and protection as they are purported to be.

To rely on the imagery of the police officer in order to make up for a lack of actual power is to call forth in students’ minds the ugly compendium of atrocities contained within the history of American police brutality, something which has been foundational to the existence of policing in the United States since its very conception. 

Let us not forget that the first form of policing implemented in the US was created to capture and return runaway slaves. It is no surprise that something which arose in the form of a slave patrol has evolved to continue to perpetuate racist ideology and contribute to the disproportionate surveillance of people of color.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I am appalled by the implications of Public Safety using their presence to act as a “visual deterrent.” 

I am also appalled by April Thompson’s suggestion that the information her letter to the editors provided regarding Public Safety protocol would give “some reassurance to the campus community that Public Safety is working to provide a safe and supportive environment for all members of our community and their guests.”

In light of all of this information, I believe that some revisions to Public Safety uniforms are in order. More specifically, I propose that officers should conduct their duties in pajamas. 

How many of us students have had the misfortune of having to interact with Public Safety officers at inconvenient times, such as late at night, when we are cozied up in our dorms, wearing pajamas and relaxing? I am willing to wager that if I were to poll the student body, the numbers would reflect that I am right to assume that I am not the only one who has had multiple interactions like this; therefore officers should level with us in terms of presenting themselves as we may be forced to present ourselves. 

If I am not allowed or able to taunt and intimidate campus security officers with my appearance, I would not like for them to do so to me. Moreover, they should not have the right to try to scare students by calling upon the generational trauma instilled in marginalized groups by police.

Let us put an end to this facade of militarization and professionalism behind which campus security officers are permitted to abuse their authority. Let the disabling of fire alarms, the unlocking of accidentally-locked doors, the corralling of harmless but intoxicated students and all other Public Safety duties fall on the shoulders of “officers” in plaid pajama pants, fuzzy bunny slippers and cozy sweatshirts. 

If Public Safety has any hopes of restoring a positive relationship with Allegheny students, then they must acknowledge that they must first abandon their dependence on the oppressive brutality underlying the attire of the police officer.