Some students say community service officers, a branch of UP, do not make residence halls feel safe

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Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Shepard Residential College. Some students say that community service officers’ presence in residential colleges makes them uncomfortable.

Alex Perry, Assistant Campus Editor

When Communication sophomore and former Shepard Residential College president Zach Forbes saw his residential college’s community service officer without a mask, he asked her to comply with Northwestern’s COVID-19 guidelines. He said he found her to be unresponsive to his requests.  

Forbes, who fielded resident complaints that the officer made them feel unsafe, said he brought the issue to the Residential College Board and area council advisors.

After a short, unexplained hiatus from the dorm, the same officer was back a few weeks later without a mask, still unresponsive to requests that she wear a mask, he said. 

“I don’t really know who the hell we’re supposed to go to to hold them accountable,” Forbes said. 

The University employs 20 CSOs who “provide security for residence halls” and “supplement campus security,” according to a November report from The Department of Safety and Security. NU also spends about $20,000 on operational expenses for CSOs such as uniforms and training. As a branch of UP, those officers report to one of three commanders, who in turn, report to Northwestern’s deputy chief of police.

Since Fall Quarter, NU Community Not Cops has called for the abolition of University Police and the reinvestment of resources to support Black students. As CSO is a branch of UP, this would mean abolishing the department would mean the removal of CSOs, too.

After widespread calls for police divestment, the University announced in March it would reconsider UP duties after an external review. However, University President Morton Schapiro said he had “absolutely no intention” to abolish UP the previous October. 

CSOs are unarmed. However, some students say that their presence alone makes them uncomfortable. 

“They still bring that policing environment into campus,” said Weinberg freshman Josh Bobbitt, who lives in Ayers College of Commerce and Industry. 

Bobbitt has connected with a few CSOs by talking about anime or music. As one of the few Black residents in Ayers, he said his CSOs are more likely to be familiar with him. But Bobbitt, who supports police abolition, said he is against bringing those associated with policing into dorms. 

Bobbitt said he once felt unsafe because he saw police officers come into his building with a member of the residential area staff. It made him question why they were allowed in, he said. According to the 2020 overview, CSOs are allowed to call in additional support from UP officers if necessary. 

“It’s still that sense of police violence but less intimidating, because they look more like rent-a-cops,” Bobbitt said. “Their physical job doesn’t really give off a police sense but then that introduced actual police bodies into the dorm, which was very shocking.” 

CSOs also interact with high school students who stay on campus over the summer. Anushka Agarwala, a Theatre Arts Cherub in summer 2019, said her interactions with them were mostly pleasant. When students couldn’t leave the dorm after curfew, the officer would help collect food from delivery drivers, she said.

Agarwala, who expects to be on campus in fall 2021 as a deferred member of the class of 2024, said she didn’t consider officers as a factor when choosing housing.

“As far as I know, they just sit at a desk and make sure kids get back in time,” Agarwala said. 

However, Bobbitt said he has been reprimanded by a CSO the morning after he left the dorm past curfew.

CSOs are not a viable option to be a resource during a dorm emergency, Bobbitt said, because of the limited role he has seen them play so far regarding safety.

“I really only look at them as sign in sheets, like if I want to bring a friend to do homework in the lounge,” Bobbitt said. 

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