After a spring and summer of continuing police violence against Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), some university students want to see campus police removed or significantly changed — but some of Canada’s biggest universities say they’re not planning to make changes to their campus police or security forces.
Ann Marie Beals, a third-year PhD student at Wilfrid Laurier University, said when white supremacist speakers have come to the university’s Waterloo, Ont. campus in the past few years, there seemed to be extra security to protect them and those who come to support them — like the Proud Boys or people wearing shirts that read “Make Berlin great again.”
That same level of protection, Beals said, was not given to BIPOC students, like themselves, who protested the speakers.
“When groups come together and there’s altercations, who do the police support and protect? It’s the appearance that it’s not the Black, Indigenous and students of colour and systemically marginalized students,” Beals, who is Black and Indigenous, told HuffPost Canada.
Beals wants to see an alternative approach to campus safety, but said they’re concerned because campus police at Laurier were going through a process to become accredited with the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and the accreditation standards manual doesn’t mention social justice nor the impact of police presence on BIPOC students. (It does say universities typically attract “a diverse student and employee population” and that agencies must deliver services equally and professionally.)
The university has since paused the accreditation process and is undertaking a review of how its special constables interact with Black, Indigenous and racialized students and how they respond to reports of racism, said Fernando Carneiro, a spokesperson for Laurier.
Beals had been working with the Laurier Students Public Interest Research Group to have a consultation about campus police and the accreditation they’re seeking, before the process was put on pause. They said the pause wasn’t communicated to them.
In the meantime, Beals questioned why the university’s special constables have been quiet during the spring and summer after high-profile incidents of police brutality in the country.
“Why has no one reached out from special constables in looking at how we can talk about making the campus a space where [oppression] doesn’t necessarily have to happen?”
“... a lot of universities kind of run to policing instead of doing well-established and well-thought-out methods of keeping communities safe ...”
HuffPost asked universities in eight of Canada’s biggest cities if they are considering changes to their campus police or security in light of broader calls to defund and abolish police. The majority, such as the Universities of Calgary, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba said they weren’t.
Hansel Igbavboa, an organizer with the Black Liberation Collective at Ryerson University, said it’s not surprising many Canadian universities aren’t looking to make these changes. He said it’s emblematic of a wider conversation about Canada being a colonial, policing state.
“The institution is no different than the state, and a lot of universities kind of run to policing instead of doing well-established and well-thought-out methods of keeping communities safe … the most impacted Black, Indigenous students and people of colour on campus feel safe.”
What are special constables?
Every province except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and British Columbia has special constables on at least one university campus, according to a 2020 report commissioned by the Ontario Association of College and University Security Administrators (OACUSA).
Under the Ontario Police Services Act, special constables may have the powers of a police officer to whatever extent is set out in their appointment. Security guards, more common on campuses, are licensed, and some universities use third-party or private security.
According to the Ontario Special Constables Association, eight universities and one college in the province employ special constables. The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities provides post-secondary institutions with an annual campus safety grant but does not track the appointment of special constables by local police services boards, spokesperson Ciara Byrne said.
At Laurier, they are employed by the university but receive training from Waterloo Regional Police Service and the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. They are technically not police officers, and are called peace officers on some campuses.
Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, said in an email that special constables are a “unique category of law enforcement in Ontario” and that while they have the limited powers of police officers, they aren’t police officers.
The ministry is currently working on the Community Safety and Policing Act, which will create a “new framework” through required regulations for special constables to give a clearer definition to their roles as being separate from police officers, Ross said.
The legislation will prevent special constables’ employers from calling them “police” or a “police service” and will mandate human rights, systemic racism and Indigenous cultural competency training for them.
Special constables operate in “a very interesting space,” Anne-Marie Singh, a criminology professor at Ryerson University, told HuffPost, noting there are questions about who campus police are accountable to.
“If you were banned from a campus or you’ve been arrested, who do you complain to? There are bodies, but how effective are those bodies?”
Ontario’s university security association has plans to “develop and promote a standard of consistent oversight and accountability for campus special constables at the local and provincial level.”
Its 2020 report states campus police are accountable to their local police services board, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and their direct employer.
In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which independently investigates police-involved incidents where there is a serious injury, death or alleged sexual assault, does not have jurisdiction over special constables. However, when the Community Safety and Policing Act comes into effect in December, the SIU will have jurisdiction over special constables with the Niagara Parks Commission, spokesperson Monica Hudon said.
But Singh noted the SIU isn’t “particularly effective at holding police accountable.” She said there are likely bodies within universities, as well as human rights tribunals, to hold special constables accountable.
For the University of Toronto, the Toronto Police Service’s board has oversight of special constables. TPS spokesperson Michelle Flannery said the board must be advised of all complaints, which are tracked by the service’s professional standards unit. Depending on the severity of the allegations, investigations are either done by Toronto police or the originating agency’s complaint investigations team.
Carneiro, the Laurier spokesperson, said special constables there are accountable to the university, their community and either the Waterloo Regional Police Service or the Brantford Police Service, depending on the campus. A complaint about a special constable would go to both human resources at Laurier and the local police service.
Campus police ‘not benign’
Singh raises concerns beyond accountability, too.
For one, campus police aren’t prohibited by the legislated ban on carding, the practice of stopping someone — disproportionately Black people — and demanding their personal information.
“[Campus police] can demand people provide [their] identification to come onto private property, the university, which results in huge databases that have all of this information — that legislation has just said that police shouldn’t have, because it’s problematic for all sorts of reasons,” Singh said.
WATCH: Ontario human rights organization finds systemic racism in Toronto police. Story continues below.
Campus police can be seen as doing community work and being otherwise “benign,” Beverly Bain, a women and gender studies professor at the University of Toronto, said at a teach-in on campus police in September.
That, Bain said, is not accurate.
“Campus police [are] not benign. They are constables that have been designated to operate on the university, but they are operating within the same kind of frame as policing outside in the larger sphere,” she said.
Campus police are increasingly involved in students’ lives, she said, from being called in cases of suspected academic cheating to responding to mental health crises on campus.
Unlike public police officers, special constables aren’t typically armed. But Singh said that doesn’t make them less dangerous.
“The danger is that ongoing, systemic attack on you.”
In February, a Twitter user posted a video that showed a transit special constable pinning a man down on a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) seat. Another appears to spray a white substance at him. In June, Toronto City Council voted to review the special constable transit unit, rejecting a motion that would have seen the TTC examine removing its own special constables in 2021.
“[Those] kind of ongoing, daily acts of violence are being done to people, to racialized groups, [and] don’t require a gun,” Singh said. “The dangerous part is that it’s ongoing, every day, every second …. The danger is that ongoing, systemic attack on you.”
Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, the co-director of Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, also works as an organizer and strategist on the #PoliceFreeSchoolsONWide campaign, which is pushing for the removal of police at all levels of school.
Regardless of how a school’s security or police is titled, “we know that the detrimental effects are still present for us,” Vásquez Jiménez said. She said she wants to see the province prioritize use of police only as a last resort and mandate police-free schools across the province.
This issue is not just at one school or post-secondary institution, she said.
“It is a systemic issue that demands the system’s response. And the provincial government indeed has the power to move forward with a provincial strategy and legislate police-free schools.”
Campus police and mental health
In Nov. 2019, a third-year University of Toronto student was handcuffed by campus police after seeking help for her mental health at the counselling centre.
Having law enforcement respond to a mental health crisis signifies an escalation, Anita Mozaffari, who witnessed the Nov. 2019 incident, told HuffPost.
At an event called U of Thrive — led by student mental health advocates following several students dying by suicide — other students shared negative experiences with campus police, including being handcuffed while in a mental health crisis, Mozaffari said.
“When [students] are panicking, the campus police [are] not able to help students .... When you’re a racialized person, especially a racialized woman, law enforcement is dangerous,” she said.
Mozaffari said health-care professionals trained in crisis response would be best to de-escalate mental health crises on campus. She said she’d also feel more comfortable with a student-led crisis response team. At the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, for example, there’s a club where trained students provide first aid.
In an open letter in the University of Toronto’s student newspaper The Varsity, more than 130 signatories — including women and gender studies professor Bain and other professors, students and alumni — called for the university to end all police involvement for students seeking health and wellness support.
“There is simply no excuse for the university to continue to place students in distress at further risk through involving police,” the letter reads.
A spokesperson for the University of Toronto said the institution has medical professionals on campus to help students experiencing mental health crises. They said there were 55 calls to campus police under the Mental Health Act in 2019.
“Campus police become involved only when an individual makes specific statements that indicate they have an intention to self-harm or to harm others,” the spokesperson said.
However, the university is redesigning its mental health support system. In partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a teaching hospital affiliated with the U of T, the university plans to enhance services on campus and expand training to staff and students in health-care fields. It will also “[review] practices and processes relating to the role of campus police in a crisis.”
Campus police management at the university’s three campuses is also partnering with the institution’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office to update their training programs, which already include training on anti-bias, anti-racism and discrimination.
“In the strongest terms possible, U of T condemns anti-Black racism and discrimination and acknowledges we have a collective responsibility as an institution to address it,” the university spokesperson said.
Ryerson a ‘blueprint’ for other universities
Ryerson University in Toronto announced in June it would not proceed with its plan to introduce a special constable program. The Toronto Police Services Board had approved the new plan — which would have seen Ryerson use a “hybrid model” of existing security and special constables — less a month before it was cancelled.
The decision followed years of advocacy from several student groups, including the Black Liberation Collective. Amina Dirie, an organizer with the collective, told HuffPost the group was successful because it didn’t align itself with the university. Instead, she said, it worked independently with students, faculty and alumni.
Nanyamjah Williams, another organizer with Black Liberation Collective at Ryerson, said universities should already be doing this work, without needing student groups to “hold their hands.”
“It’s a university — they know what anti-oppression is,” she said. “But when it’s convenient for them, they’ll say, ‘We need guidance. And we’d like your expertise. And we would like to work with you.’ And [they] should already have systems in place that protect students and keep them safe.”
Ryerson announced an external expert panel on campus safety in August. It will make recommendations on a “service-delivery model” with a report due in March 2021.
But Williams said she isn’t hopeful about Ryerson’s future actions. She believes the university has a history of releasing a statement to “hush the crowd and then, later on, they’ll do something different.” She cited concerns with Ryerson’s anti-Black racism climate review report, which she said seemed to give recommendations that were theoretical, as opposed to concrete actions, and which not all Black students and faculty were aware of.
A Ryerson spokesperson said the school takes community concerns seriously and has begun to address several recommendations in the report, including establishing a Black student lounge, creating a Black excellence committee and holding events that centre Black students. Ryerson has also created a committee to confront anti-Black racism to continue implementing the report’s recommendations.
Some other students still see Ryerson as an example of the direction to move in.
What Ryerson did could be a “blueprint” for other schools, such as the University of Toronto since they both have downtown campuses, said Muntaka Ahmed, president of the university’s students’ union. This year provides the perfect “blank slate” to reassess the role of campus police and make changes, given the lower number of students on campus, she said.
“The things that campus police are historically used for [are] not really happening right now,” Ahmed said. “So I think the university is in a place where it can judge the past it’s had with the campus police, reassess it and make sure that they can press the reset button for going ahead in the future….”
She recalls being part of the school’s Muslim Students Association, holding events with large crowds like iftar, breaking fast, during Ramadan, and having campus police check around the event and remind students to pack it up by a certain time. It happened “constantly,” she said — more than it appeared to happen toward a group of white students.
Ahmed said talks with university administration about campus police have seemed like an “empty conversation,” with the university not showing a willingness to change from its current model. The student union is working on a report about campus police to bring to the administration with more specific questions, Ahmed said.
The external commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, Jacqui Spencer, has been in ongoing meetings with university administration as part of the union’s Black Student Matters campaign that is pushing for, among other things, the removal of campus police.
“We’ve had concerns around the training of campus police in response to students dealing with mental health, students being handcuffed versus being supported and given the right supports based on their trauma needs,” Spencer said.
She said there’s a history of campus police either not doing anything or over-reacting to instances of violence involving BIPOC students.
“... We feel that it’s unnecessary for U of T to have their own police department. They are not supportive of racialized students on campus,” she said.
Spencer added the university’s administration hasn’t made firm commitments in their meetings, but said the removal of campus police will be a big focus for the graduate students’ union this year. It’s going to be an “uphill battle,” she predicted, but she is hoping to create substantive change.
““It’s more important now because it’s time.”
She wants to see a reallocation of funds to go to a trauma response team whose members are trained to deal with students in distress, as well as to hiring more racialized counsellors and therapists at the university.
“That is where that money can be most useful,” Spencer said.
As the university accepts more international and racialized students, the university needs to create more support and safety for those students, she added.
“It’s more important now because it’s time. It’s time that we do the work that the rest of the world world has acknowledged needs to be done.”