By Paul Kiefer
A coalition of faculty and students at the University of Washington used the public comment session before a meeting of the university’s Board of Regents on Wednesday to call for disbanding the Seattle campus’ police department in response to allegations of widespread anti-Black racism among department officers.
The allegations sent shock waves through the school last month when all five of the department’s Black rank-and-file officers filed a lawsuit against the university, detailing years of egregious harassment by coworkers and supervisors alike. One officer described an incident in which a supervisor beat him with a switch and commented, “You people should be used to being hit with these.”
The lawsuit, first covered by the New York Times, prompted a year-old coalition of faculty and student activists called Decriminalize UW to rework their demands for changes to the university’s police department. Megan Ybarra, a professor of geography and a member of the coalition, said Decriminalize UW spent much of the past year advocating for the university to reduce the department’s $8 million budget and disarm its officers.
“The lawsuit just highlighted a longstanding culture of racism and abuse within the department—not just against its own officers, but against students, campus workers and people passing through campus—that was getting swept under the rug,” she said. “So it became clear that, for the safety of our students and people on campus in general, we needed to push to have the department disbanded.”
Kiana, a member of the Black Student Union who asked PubliCola to use only her first name, argued that the university’s police department is redundant because the Seattle Police Department has jurisdiction over the campus. “We essentially get two levels of policing,” she said, “and keeping a second police department is both a bad use of money and, as we’ve experienced, a way to make Black, Indigenous and unhoused people on campus feel less safe.”
According to the department’s public crime data, its officers spend a substantial portion of their time taking reports about bike thefts and responding to drinking-related calls. Chandan Reddy, a professor of gender studies and a member of Decriminalize UW, suggested that the university could replace those functions with an online reporting system for minor thefts and unarmed staff members to escort drunk students across campus safely.
The coalition’s demands parallel wider calls in the Seattle area and across the country for local governments and institutions to create non-police responses to mental health crises and other emergencies; the Seattle Fire Department, for instance, began scaling up its crisis response program—called Health One—earlier this year.
Aside from the allegations detailed in the lawsuit, Reddy also noted that a controversial contract with the union representing most of the department’s officers adds fuel to Decriminalize UW’s calls to disband the agency. That contract, which took effect at the beginning of July, loosened the rules allowing officers to clear parts of their disciplinary records and provided officers a 72-hour window before reporting serious uses of force.
After the university finalized the contract last August, a UW spokesman told a reporter for the campus newspaper The Daily that the new rules for clearing officers’ disciplinary records resemble rules that apply to “regular” university employees. The contract also anticipates the creation of a police oversight board and grants the union a hand in negotiating its responsibilities.
Department spokesman Major Steve Rittereiser said the department resembles most other law enforcement agencies in the Seattle area: Its officers are armed, and they have the authority to make arrests and refer cases for prosecution. The key difference, he said, is that officers spend more of their time casually interacting with students, faculty and campus workers—a shift for the department’s officers, many of whom transferred to the university from other agencies.
But officers’ roles may change when students return to campus in the fall, Rittereiser said, because the department shrank by 20 percent over the past year; at the moment, the department consists of only thirty officers. “Since we saw this attrition while students were working from home, we don’t know how our jobs will change in the upcoming year,” he said.
Because the fate of the university police department wasn’t on the Board of Regents’ agenda on Wednesday, the group did not discuss Decriminalize UW’s call to disband the agency. Ultimately, the future of policing on the university’s campuses lies in the hands of university president Ana Marie Cauce, though a source on the Board of Regents’ staff said Cauce would likely seek the regents’ support before making a decision.
IUW spokesman Victor Balta said Friday that Cauce “remains committed to reimagining campus safety and minimizing the armed police presence on campus.” He added that the university has begun hiring members of an unarmed crisis response team who will begin working during the upcoming fall quarter, and that the school recently launched an online crime reporting tool to reduce the need for interactions with armed law enforcement.