Students seek end to police at Amherst College

  • Amherst College GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2021 4:22:57 PM

AMHERST — Student leaders at Amherst College, who have been making appeals for disarming the campus police and reducing its size and responsibilities, are moving toward a request to abolish the department.

Joining the Black Student Union, which led a campus walkout this week in response to the police shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, who was killed Sunday at a traffic stop in Minnesota, the Association of Amherst Students is supporting a call for disbanding campus police.

While the student government has not formally made that appeal to the college’s board of trustees, members indicated during the walkout that they would endorse the Black Student Union’s demands.

“Abolishing the department will allow for funds to be allocated to other vital aspects of student life that will help create a safe and inclusive community for all,” the union wrote in its list of demands.

At the same time, the union is asking to double the number of counselors at the counseling center, using savings from police reductions, and to allow students more excuses for being absent from classes, such as mental health challenges associated with systemic racism.

The Black Student Union is using what are known as “8 to Abolition” strategies, developed following the George Floyd killing in Minnesota last year, that include defunding police, demilitarizing communities and “investing in care, not cops.”

Campus Police Chief John Carter recently made a presentation titled “Reimagining Community Safety & Service” to the student government about possible changes to his department, including getting a comfort dog or ambassador dogs and hiring community service officers to supplement the 15 sworn officers.

Carter presented statistics showing that weapons have rarely been discharged in the 80 years the officers have been armed, and that no officers have fired or displayed guns in the past 20 years. Just 55 arrests have been made over the past decade, according to a college spokeswoman.

Ayodele Lewis, senior chairwoman of the Black Student Union, said the union wants institution-wide change, using money saved on police for mental health resources and other programs that support student well-being.

“The college must engage in a serious discussion of the current state of tangible threats to the campus and what campus safety means,” Lewis said.

But she said the union also understands that disarming officers isn’t sufficient because Floyd, along with Eric Garner in 2014, both died at the hands of police who didn’t use weapons. 

Though some have argued that having no campus police would mean the college would have to depend on the town’s police for service instead, Lewis said if dismantling is done correctly, police should not be needed on campus.

In a statement released by the college, President Biddy Martin expressed sympathy with the students who led the walkout, stating that Wright’s killing “adds yet more stress, anxiety and fatigue to what our students, faculty, and staff of color already feel in the wake of too many such incidents.”

“Black students acted today on their need to pause, to take stock, and rest from the barrage,” Martin said. “They challenged the community to place a higher priority on mental health and well-being and they gathered in solidarity with one another.”

Martin didn’t commit to abolishing campus police, though is willing to continue discussions.

“The college will continue to work hard on the commitments outlined in the anti-racism plan and in two quarterly updates, placing particular emphasis on mental health and well being, and changes to ACPD [Amherst College Police Department],” Martin wrote. “Both of these critical pieces of work require more study and more dialogue before final decisions can be made.”

Editor’s note: This article was corrected April 27 to say Amherst College police have made 55 arrests over the past decade.

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