Community members participate in day of refusal; public safety goes through reimagining process

Claire Jacobs & Ethan Tan

Staff Writers

The Department of Public Safety, in the midst of a national reckoning on race and policing, is reimagining its department operations and policies. ETHAN TAN/FOGHORN

In the midst of wrapping up the semester, some USF students and professors called for a strike on academic work in solidarity with police abolition.

In mid-April, a new group called the Student Abolition Collective (USFSAC) started disseminating content directed to members of the USF community on social media. The group promoted that they were a “student-run group focused on abolition and removing cops from campus,” and they quickly began messaging on Instagram about their main initiative, the May 3 “Day of Refusal.” 

In USFSAC’s own words in an Instagram caption, “Day of refusal is a nationwide work stoppage on May 3 including any work for the university in observance of the walkout.”

The strike on academic work was intended as a protest against administrators, who USFSAC perceived as not having listened to their demands to make campus safer.

USFSAC organizers declined to comment for this story.

In the days leading up to the event, the collective asked students to share their vision of campus without police. Responses centered around having resources redirected towards supportive and preventative initiatives like “peer to peer counselors” and renounced the presence of officers in student residence buildings.

USF Public Safety officers have been known to enter student housing in cases where searches are requested by Student Housing and Residential Education (SHaRE). These cases, though, are now being re-evaluated under USF’s Progressive Policing Advisory Board, according to Department of Public Safety Senior Director Dan Lawson. 

Public Safety has come under scrutiny this past year as a result of multiple incidents, such as  the discovery of a noose hanging on a student’s balcony in March. But, since classes turned virtual in March 2020, student dissatisfaction with Public Safety has been quieter than usual until these last few months.

The USF student community reacted with support to USFSAC’s content, with numerous students reposting it across social media platforms. There is no confirmed count of how many students actually partook in the academic strike on May 3.

Professors, like Rebecca Mason of the philosophy department, also took an interest in the initiative. Mason said she changed assignment deadlines to accommodate student participation on the Day of Refusal.

“I hadn’t heard about the Day of Refusal until one of my students who was participating in organizing the event at USF asked if I would consider participating and sharing information about it. That’s why I decided to move assignment deadlines, so students could participate in the Day of Refusal without worrying about their homework being late,” Mason said. 

While Mason admitted she hasn’t had many interactions with USF Public Safety, she cited the November 2019 shooting scare as formative to her perspective on USF’s campus police presence. 

On the other hand, politics professor James Taylor, who also sits on the Progressive Policing Community Advisory Board, did not participate in the strike and expressed concern about the group effort.

“To me it’s important that any effort like this be from students, but I also think people have to take a pause and weigh their advocacy against their experience. And that is to say, how many people have had bad experiences with law enforcement or on-campus public safety? And I’m not saying that’s zero, but most people don’t have a bad experience. And a lot of us mobilize around these issues out of a general concern, but not out of a concern based on our experience,” he said.

Taylor drew attention to the fact that there have been no major instances of brutality by campus public safety, and underlined the need for activists to “separate sentiment from experience.” In an interview with the Foghorn, Taylor said that the advisory council is doing its job by helping the Department of Public Safety reform itself and adapt to the unique environment at USF.

While the discussion of policing and its abolition on a national level still remains on the mind of many, in the microclimate of a college campus there’s less certainty on what constitutes a police officer. 

At USF, public safety officers are not sworn California police officers, although they do have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). This means that public safety officers only have jurisdiction to handle infractions that occur on university property, unless called upon by SFPD, such as responding to incidents involving USF students.

In the Department of Public Safety, there is a distinction between community safety and public safety officers. Only the latter carries a firearm, handcuffs, and pepper spray. Armed officers must have completed California’s Peace Officer Standards and Training course, and the department requires officers go through a police academy on top of internal training to align with USF’s mission and goal of restoraitive justice, according to Lawson.

Lawson said the public safety department as a whole, including its internal policies and safety tactics, are being reviewed to meet community needs, admitting that training and policies in the past have failed students.

According to Lawson, the Department of Public Safety has adopted a policy to no longer enter residence halls unless accompanied by a SHaRE staff member, as a result of community feedback. Further, searches in rooms must be requested from SHaRE. Lawson also shared that one of the matters the advisory board is looking at is whether officers will need to be armed in the future, and if so, how many.

Claire Jacobs is a junior entrepreneurship and innovation major and a Deputy News Editor who covers campus life. She can be reached at cejacobs@dons.usfca.edu or on Twitter @claireisloading
Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at etan@sffoghorn.com or on Twitter @tanethans.

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