Amaral: Lack of institutional memory and the acceptance of armed police

Luís Nunes Amaral, Columnist

Content warning: This story contains mentions of anti-Black violence.

Northwestern is extremely demanding — yet, undergraduate students have a 94% six-year graduation rate. This outstanding outcome shows both the intellectual caliber of our students and the University’s ability to successfully guide them through numerous demanding majors. But as each class graduates, an inevitable issue is created: a lack of community consciousness and a loss of institutional memory. Because of this, I fear many current students are not aware of the organizing undertaken by NU Community Not Cops.

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 prompted a period of student organizing and public action in Evanston. NUCNC played a leading role in those actions by hosting teach-ins educating NU students on the problem of relying on armed police for public safety. In response, the University allowed the Evanston Police Department to call in the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System Mobile Field Force. Their response was violent and out of proportion, as reported by former Daily staffer and Medill masters student Alex Harrison and Zach Watson (Medill ‘22).

NUCNC’s calls for abolition were met with ridicule. “What about school shootings?” critics asked. Today they say, “Don’t we need armed police in order to respond appropriately to another Michigan State University, The University of Texas at Austin or Virginia Tech? Or, shouldn’t we place armed police in every classroom?”

Fires can have deadly consequences, but we don’t have firefighters continuously patrolling our streets carrying fire extinguishers and axes. So, why do we have armed police continuously patrolling streets as if our cities are battlegrounds?

Early police were established as state-sponsored slave patrols. By the mid-19th century, urban police were flooding the streets, aiming to intimidate immigrants and suppress workers’ organizing efforts. Perhaps the most important detail is articulated by Harvard historian Jill Lepore in a 2020 article in The New Yorker. She writes, “Modern American policing began in 1909, when August Vollmer became the chief of the police department in Berkeley, California.” He militarized police in Berkeley, and his peers followed suit, adapting colonial violence — “the kinds of tactics and weapons that had been deployed against Native Americans in the West and against colonized peoples in other parts of the world, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.”

Vollmer is still celebrated as the father of American policing. His influence spans the nation, even in academia, due to his teaching at the University of Chicago beginning in 1929.

The tactics he promoted are still being used daily. According to Mapping Police Violence, hardly a day goes by without at least one person being murdered by police — in fact, since MVP started keeping records 2013, one person has been murdered by a police officer about every eight hours. This astonishing rate doesn’t include those who are shot but somehow survive, as was the case of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot over six times at close range by a Kenosha Police officer. 

Every time a police officer commits a particularly gruesome or unjustifiable murder, there is a renewed debate about what to do. Sadly, these debates also lack institutional memory. They seem to start from scratch, and well-trodden facts must be established once more. 

But what are these facts? People of color are over-policed and over-criminalized. As Lepore reminds us, “prosecutors indicted Black people disproportionately; juries found Black people guilty disproportionately; judges gave Black people disproportionately long sentences; and, then, after all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality.” And we must not forget that, until recently, these prosecutors, juries, judges and social scientists were nearly all white. 

We need to accept that “reform” doesn’t work. As the thin-blue-line flags, T-shirts and bandanas demonstrate, police force culture is predicated on an “us against them” ethos. A barrier to meaningful reform is the warrior cop mindset, which encourages police to see their beats as a battlefield.

Unlike de-escalation and civil rights training, which are attended purely out of obligation, warrior cop training by the likes of David Grossman is voluntarily attended by police around the nation, gaining enthusiastic support. The result is stark: even though very few offenses are eligible for capital punishment, our society allows police officers to execute Black people, many still children, on sight with no pretense of due process. 

The warrior cop mindset traumatizes members of oppressed groups by forcing them to fear for their lives every time they interact with police. The fear instilled by generational trauma cuts years from their lives and is misinterpreted as suspicious behavior. The outcome of a mere traffic stop or a casually aggressive police officer can be severe bodily injury and death.

University Police Chief of Police Bruce Lewis recently presented crime statistics for the Evanston and Chicago campuses. The takeaway: despite a rise in reported rape cases in recent years, these are extraordinarily safe places for white people. Some bikes get stolen. Some people are scared by interactions with individuals they perceive as threatening. Seeing armed police officers gives white people a sense of security. Is it worth the trauma we are inflicting on people of color in our community? Is it worth another life?

Luis Amaral is a professor of chemical and biological engineering. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.