UMass rally calls for end to campus police, ensuring housing for 900 students without it

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-06-2023 3:12 PM

AMHERST — Student activists are calling for the abolition of police at the University of Massachusetts, while directing campus leaders to put more resources toward ensuring that 900 or so students who have yet to obtain housing for this fall — and who could be at risk of becoming homeless or dropping out — have places to live next semester.

“We call for an end, not only to armed uniformed officers, but commitment against policing each other and our communities,” Sabrina Lacayo, a UMass student and member of the Prison Abolition Collective, said during a Wednesday afternoon protest that drew about 100 students.

The action was organized by the Cops Off Campus campaign, a joint initiative of the collective and UMass Radical Student Alliance, and comes in response to ongoing concerns about the arrest of a student last fall who was crossing Commonwealth Avenue in a construction zone. The two UMass police officers involved in that arrest have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

The 100 or so protesters gathered in front of the Student Union and then walked to the Whitmore Administration Building, where they used chalk to write on the walls and the ramp of the concrete building, and then went inside to deliver demands.

Those demands include that public safety efforts feature healing and transformative justice practices, that a non-armed crisis response team be created, and that all police presence be removed from campus, including student cadets, State Police, local police and what the activists described as militarized private security.

“When you think about the amount of Black and brown students on campus who feel that UMass is a hostile environment, you must understand that police presence is connected to those feelings,” said T.J. James, a member of the Graduate Employee Union Organization.

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“I, for one, don’t want an unelected, militarized police force trained for the sole purpose of maintaining the current ruling order being the one that decides whether my conduct as a student is right or wrong,” said Mitchell Brecht, who belongs to the UMass Revolutionary Marxist Students.

University responds

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said in a statement that UMass Police is committed to identifying and eliminating bias in policing. He said police will use advice from a report by Margolis Healy and Associates — which exonerated the two officers in the Nov. 1 incident in which students claimed they used excessive force and were biased in arresting a student — to align the department’s work with industry best practices.

Beyond clearing the officers involved, the report offered recommendations to improve interactions with people on campus, some of which are already part of the department’s existing training and procedures, including requiring de-escalation, crisis intervention and implicit bias awareness training. Other recommendations include adopting Active Bystander for Law Enforcement training and body-worn video cameras.

These recommendations will be reviewed with members of the Community/Police Advisory Board, a group of appointed undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff charged with making recommendations to the vice chancellor of Student Affairs & Campus Life and the assistant vice chancellor/chief of police on improving campus safety, police-community communications, changes in police policies and the citizens’ complaint processes.

Housing issue

At the protest, though, students suggested that in place of this Community/Police Advisory Board should be a democratically elected board of students, faculty and staff to control campus public safety and the student affairs budget.

Also embedded in the activists’ demands is a concern that one-third of the student affairs budget funds the police, especially when the university isn’t ensuring that all students have a place to live.

“This is outrageous given that undergraduate and graduate students are experiencing challenges around housing,” James said.

Residential Life assignments staff this week sent an email to some of the more than 900 students who may have to wait until summer to go through the unassigned room selection process before they will know if they get a room on campus.

“Unfortunately, with 900 more appointment requests than there are spaces available on campus, we are not able to guarantee all students will be able to select a housing assignment,” the UMass email states.

Blaguszewski said UMass already adjusted its room selection process to accommodate increased interest for on-campus housing by returning students, in particular providing more opportunities for second-year undergraduates to help them build connections and community by living on campus. This decision was made in consultation with the Student Government Association.

“What we have seen in the aftermath of the pandemic is that many more rising juniors and seniors want to live on campus than in the past,” Blaguszewski said. “As a result, we cannot fulfill all requests to live in university housing.”

The university is referring students who may not be able to live on campus to places that are opening in the private market, including the 623 new beds of undergraduate housing being built through a public-private partnership on Massachusetts Avenue.

UMass currently has a campus housing design capacity of 13,586 beds, making it the sixth-largest on-campus residential program in the country, though some economy triples, converted spaces not typically designed as bedrooms, will be used again in the fall. UMass also housed transfer students last fall in a Hadley hotel.

In addition, UMass also offers assistance to students in their search for housing in the Amherst area. The Off Campus Student Life office is recommending students check the housing website daily, and that while the Amherst housing market remains tight, as it is across the state, there are have been an increase in local listings compared to the past two years.

Still, the Prison Abolition Collective issued a statement following the rally about the situation it sees: “Putting more money towards police is especially egregious when about 900 students who requested housing are facing possible homelessness or being forced to drop out due to UMass’ continual over-enrollment and housing shortage.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>