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UI Taking Public Comment On Reimagining Campus Safety, Policing

A University of Iowa committee is currently taking public comment on proposals to reimagine campus safety and policing. Some of the potential models call for a significant move away from the traditional model of policing.

The University of Iowa is now taking public comment on proposals to reimagine campus safety and the role of police officers. What was initially a process limited to the UI community and those with a university-issued HawkID is now accessible to the public writ large, following criticism from activists and open-government advocates. The review stems from this summer’s protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

The Reimagining Campus Safety Action Committee, made up of UI faculty, staff and students, has outlined three potential models for changing the school’s approach to public safety, with the aim of creating “an anti-racist system that provides compassionate, caring response to the full range of safety needs for all members of the UI community,” according to a university webpage on the effort.

The proposed models or “prototypes” span efforts to focus on retraining and recruiting, establish a community police review board, redirect calls for service to other responders such as health care providers, or significantly reduce the police presence on campus.

The prototypes and brief descriptions compiled by the committee include:

  • Prototype: Refocusing Accountability, and Retraining for Campus Police Service
    • This prototype calls for a reimagining of the focus and structure of police response at the University of Iowa. This prototype specifically focuses on the University of Iowa Police Department, a division within the UI Department of Public Safety.
  • Prototype: Holistic Approach to Campus Safety
    • This prototype envisions a more holistic approach to campus safety that proactively supports and invests in students' health and well-being, centralizes support and resources for students, and utilizes alternative first responders, such as mental health professionals and trained mediators.
  • Prototype: Community-Police Oversight Committee
    • This idea, to form an oversight committee to ensure anti-racist campus safety practices, is designed to ensure that university police and other entities are fully accountable to our university community.

The Iowa Freedom Riders, a local Black Lives Matter group, are among those pushing for broader public input on the plans and advocating for the university to dissolve UIPD altogether.

“The proposals about “retraining” and “police oversight” will leave us with another round of failed reforms, just as in past decades of struggle for racial justice. We must loudly reject those two,” the group posted on its Instagram feed. “Support & push the Holistic model even farther and demand eliminating UIPD altogether.”

Both the first and second prototype call for redirecting certain calls for service to other first responders such as mental health providers or victim advocates, as appropriate, instead of police officers. The first and third prototypes would both establish an oversight group to review policies and practices.

The second prototype is considered the most transformative of the proposals and would entail reducing “the scope and funding of the UIPD” and reallocating those resources to social services.

“We propose that there would no longer be a culture of police patrol on campus,” reads an explanation submitted by the committee. “Based on feedback from focus groups of historically marginalized campus voices, the prototype reduces the scope and funding of the UIPD. UIPD's presence would be limited to immediate threats of serious harm such as active shooters, assaults with weapons, stalking, and other serious situations.”

Under the Holistic Approach, UIPD resources would be reallocated to proactively addressing community needs so that emergency services are required as little as possible. The plan calls for increased resources for underserved communities, more scholarship funding, housing and food assistance and expanded mental health services.

Under this proposal, the UI would also establish a “central space” on campus that would align a host of health and safety resources, bringing together university and community providers who could be involved in calls for service “without the threat of punishment and violence”.

Captain Mark Bullock, Interim Co-Director of Public Safety at the UI, who is also a member of the committee said it has been challenging, but at times validating to hear campus feedback and review the proposals.

“It’s not good when people want to see a model in which we don’t have as much of a role in our community because we see a lot of value in our role in our community. But we want to hear the feedback,” Bullock said. “We feel that we have a very inclusive service and we really, truly are comprised of men and women that care deeply about the community and care deeply about how they serve.”

But some activists are eager to see the university move beyond the traditional model of policing, which they say has for too long resulted in the criminalization of mental illness and acts of violence and lethal force against people of color.

Elizabeth Rook Panicucci, a co-director of the community bail and bond fund Prairielands Freedom Fund, points to UIPD officers’ role, along with other local law enforcement, in using tear gas and other less than lethal munitions against nonviolent protestors on June 3, 2020.

“We see it as this kind of pinnacle moment,” she said. “We can use the talking point of the over-militarization that we saw over the summer and over-policing that we saw over the summer to say, that is an extreme example of something that we actually see in our community all of the time, particularly to people of color.”

Julia Zalenski, the legal director for Prairielands Freedom Fund, said that while even the holistic model “does not go far enough” in her view, she’s encouraged that the university is considering what some would view as “drastic” changes to campus policing.

“I think a lot of these ideas are drastic or feel drastic just because we are not accustomed to imagining a world without the kind of policing that we have right now. But once you start doing that, it's…it's right there, right? It's…it's for the taking,” Zalenski said. “Communities know how to help each other. They know how to lift each other up. They know how to keep each other safe. They just need the resources to do it. And that's where we're going.”

The development of the proposals included feedback provided at two campus town halls (open to those with a HawkID) and through an online survey. According to the Daily Iowan, a majority of students at the campus town halls favored the holistic prototype.

University leaders have reiterated the proposals may overlap with each other and that the final recommendation made to UI President Bruce Harreld may include multiple prototypes or some combination of them.

According to the university, the committee plans to make its recommendation to Harreld early in the spring semester, with the goal of “having a new structure in place” by July.

The deadline to submit public comments online is Friday, March 5 at 5 p.m.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter