Students Help Lead Effort to Reimagine Campus Policing

Marty Alvarado, Stephen Kodur , Ka Ren MacCalla

Guest column by Executive Vice Chancellor for Educational Services and Support Marty J. Alvarado with support from Student Senate leaders, Ka Ren MacCalla and Stephen Kodur

During the summer of 2020, demonstrations protesting police violence and bias rippled across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Young people led the charge and were front and center at many of these events. That type of youth leadership has also emerged on college campuses, as many students have raised their voices and engaged in action to push for reforms in campus policing practices.

A Call to Action for California Community Colleges

Serving the nation’s most diverse student bodies, the California Community Colleges system is well positioned to be a catalyst for a national movement of community colleges taking on the work of bridging racial equity, campus policing, and student success. The Chancellor’s Office sought to launch such a movement in June 2020, issuing a systemwide Call to Action to “actively strategize and take action against structural racism” in order to fulfill the commitment that individual colleges and the system as a whole have made to promoting student success.

This commitment extends to campus policing. The Chancellor’s Office sees a clear connection between the culture of campus policing and the system’s ability to create an equitable and inclusive campus climate, and the Call to Action says campus police must be part of an open dialogue about campus climate.

The Student Senate for California Community Colleges followed that move in September 202 by adopting a plan of its own: the Anti-Racism: Student Plan of Action, which outlined essential components of cross-stakeholder collaboration to build campus communities that will:

  • Provide safe spaces for students to regularly give feedback and share experiences with one another and with administrators and the campus police.
  • Create more opportunities for students and police personnel to interact and build community.
  • Include students in schoolwide discussions and decisions pertaining to campus safety and policing.
  • Have concrete plans of action and a system of accountability for responding to incidents—and clearly communicate those plans to the student body.

The task that lay before the student leaders was to bring these recommendations to fruition.

Student Leaders Reimagine Campus Policing

In 2021, the Chancellor’s office established the California Community College Reimagining Campus Policing Task Force. An 18-member, diverse set of stakeholders and campus executive leaders, the task force’s mission was to envision a new approach to campus policing.

Senate leaders Ka Ren MacCalla, former vice chair for Region VI, and Stephen Kodur, former president, had the opportunity to play significant roles as task force members.

Stephen said it was remarkable to be part of an initiative that took a student-centered approach.

“A majority of the numerous meetings I am invited to, I feel tokenized. My presence there is just so they can have a student on the committee, and our experiences aren’t always listened to or even valued,” he said. “The focus on our experiences this time helped me feel more a part of the task force and important to the Chancellor’s Office and other members.”

As student leaders on their campus and across the system, Ka Ren and Stephen share the perspective that it is important to give voice to issues that impact student experiences on campus, including campus policing. Their perspectives were reflected in the Reimagining Campus Policing Task Force’s processes, and the group’s January 2022 recommendations reflected messages such as these that students had elevated throughout the previous year:

  • Campus police should be a part of the campus community. They are part of campus culture, and that message should be reinforced.
  • Campus police departments should be diverse and reflect the student populations they serve. This could greatly mitigate the intimidation factor.
  • Students want to trust campus police and want to be trusted by campus police. They do not want to be profiled or harassed simply because of the way they look.
  • Students should be heard, and campus police should listen to their concerns and perspectives. This comes through engagement, enfranchising students, and breaking down of silos that exist on campus.
  • Students should be seen as equal partners in ensuring campus safety and leading campus change. This means acknowledging the power dynamics that may prevent students from fully participating.

Ka Ren and Stephen both said that their engagement with the Reimagining Campus Policing Task Force for the Chancellor’s Office provided them with a platform to exercise their leadership in new ways.

Ka Ren said that being a member of the task force exceeded her expectations. “I know this is only the beginning, and I’m looking forward to the next steps to come out of these intentional conversations,” she said.

A Changing Climate

Students’ recommendations for campus police reform are critical because their experiences on campus are most directly impacted by policing, especially for students of color. Student leaders recognize the challenge. As Stephen said, “I’ve had relatively negative experiences with officers. Experiences of intimidation to a point where I feared my next encounter.”

But he added that he has had other experiences that have shown that change is possible.

On one occasion, he recalled, “When leading one of my campus’s student government meetings, an officer walked in and my blood started rushing and my heart started beating faster. The officer stayed the entire meeting. I was sweating.”

His anxiety did ease a bit as the meeting drew to a close, but not entirely: “To my astonishment, he began greeting students at the end of the meeting. As it was my meeting, I stayed until the end, but was thinking, ‘He stayed here for me. Great. Now I’m in trouble.’”

But it turned out he had nothing to worry about. “Instead, he introduced himself, thanked me for being a student leader, and gave me his card, which I still have to this day,” Stephen said. “He said that student leaders have a pulse on the campus, and if he was going to be successful here, he would need to have a good relationship with students and no better place to start than with the students who serve them. We need more of those officers.”

A Call to Action for Leaders

Now is the time for college leaders, campus police departments, officials and residents of surrounding communities, and students to work together on this shared responsibility of campus safety and student well-being.

Students want, can, and need to take the lead to ensure that campus reform is student-centered.

Student leadership matters to key stakeholders. As task force member Amber Wade, chief of police at Napa Valley College, said during the January 2022 meeting of Board of Governors for the California Community Colleges, “I will admit when I started this process, I was a little bit hesitant stepping into it. But coming out on the other side of it, I am very thankful for this opportunity. . . . It was very beneficial that the task force was such a diverse group from across all the colleges. I believe that everyone’s voices were heard, especially that of our students—and we all know that’s really the most important.”

In partnership with Jobs for the Future (JFF), the Chancellor’s Office structured the task force with that type of engagement in mind. But students are still pushing for campus policing reform efforts to move beyond conversation. If student engagement efforts don’t include opportunities for students to take part in decision-making, then students won’t truly have a voice.

System and college leaders may say they want to listen to student voices, but if they don’t commit to taking action in response to what they hear, students will tire out and their hope will diminish. Students need to know that leaders believe in them, that they are willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and that they are willing to work toward identifying what would really make a difference and improve student success.

The work of the Reimagining Campus Policing Task Force, which was facilitated by JFF, represented the first step in this process. The recommendations in the task force’s January 2022 report included actionable strategies to create incentives for making further changes in campus policing.

“I know this is only the beginning,” said Ka Ren. “I’m looking forward to the next steps to come out of these intentional conversations.”