LTE: On the University’s history of police violence

Jeff Rice, Op-Ed Contributor

Content Warning: This piece contains mention of police violence.

This is in response to the recent column by Prof. Luís Amaral regarding institutional violence and institutional memory. I would like to offer some brief memories of Northwestern University’s own role in policing “irregularities.”

I recall with clarity the NU police at the time I arrived as a first year in 1968, including the name and face of a very large individual who engaged in inappropriate and questionable behavior. The NU police were not as professionalized as they are today. As early as spring of ‘69, I remember the University using undercover police to investigate drug use and possession on campus. This was met with significant criticism from the Student Senate President, Fran Shanahan, and myself. While I was secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, The Daily Northwestern interviewed me. My quote appeared on page one of the paper: “Shanahan, Rice blast detective proposal.” I must confess, I never kept a scrapbook.

A year later, when the Kent State and Jackson State killings occurred, the faculty advisor of the left-wing SDS received a phone call from the advisor of the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom, asking if they could issue a joint statement objecting to this move, and banning guns from campus. And they did. 

In my time at NU, it seemed as though the police had more firepower every term.

When I arrived, I spent one year in McCulloch Hall (Room 223, for the record), living a few feet from the stairway. One evening, a policeman came running up the stairs, shouting, brandishing a handgun, chasing what I could only conclude was an apparition. Of course, none of us were armed with anything more than a slide rule (look it up). My memory is that it was the questionable officer. Later, either that spring or the following one, the same officer drove onto the sidewalk with some speed and hit a comrade of mine with their police car. Their glasses were destroyed and they were sent to the emergency room, but suffered no serious injuries. I have no memory of the officer thereafter and assume he was gone.

Our Public Safety officers are now much more professional and have greater amounts of training as well as a larger portfolio of responsibilities. I have chatted with many, on campus, in my office, at Welsh-Ryan Arena. My sense is that individually, they are decent people. Institutionally, they may be positioned to cause harm. Over the past few years, reports by the University have shown a disproportionate number of incidents involving students of color.

In my view, the institutional culture of policing always requires constraints. I suspect that campus security actually does care about its behavior, unlike in my undergraduate days.

Having said this, my experience also instructs me that when anyone — including students — engages in anti-institutional protests, they will be met with force. That is part of the overall structure of hierarchy, authority and power. Force does not require excessive and inappropriate levels of violence. We need police reform in the U.S. Excesses nationally are already excessive. Institutional memory is part of the reform process.

Clarification: This story has been updated to better reflect the extent of an instance of police violence on campus.

Jeff Rice is a Weinberg alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. 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.