The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the position of ZU Media or APU.
With radical instances of police brutality and calls for justice from the Black Lives Matter movement, is having armed campus safety officers on campus a step back?
I sat a world apart from the girl I was looking at. Yet, in that moment, on that screen was someone just like me, talking about what matters to her more than anything: her school and her community. She was concerned about whether or not the school she loved was safe anymore.
This is how my interview went with Chai Gaynair. Gaynair is the co-director of Disciples in Action (DIA), a student organization that is a resource for people of color (POC) and non-POC students alike. For POC students, it is a place to talk about issues that affect them and for non-POC students it is a place to come and learn about things that affect minority student’s everyday lives and ask questions about how to be a better ally. Discussion about the decision that Azusa Pacifc made last semester to have armed campus safety officers present on campus has been a regular topic of discourse both in DIA, and in her circle.
Of course, that is not the only side of the story; it never is. But it was a beginning: the start of my search for more answers.
Gaynair has been doing social justice work for years alongside Rox Costello, her best friend, DIA co-director and the original dreamer that recognized how an organization like theirs on campus could help more students feel safe.
“We wanted [DIA] to do three things: to create a space for those who were questioning if systemic racism was an issue to ask questions with as little judgement as possible, to provide a space for those who, doing social justice work was a part of their identity, and to educate anyone who wanted to learn,” Gaynair said.
And this organization is living up to those original intentions. They have a staff that crosses department lines, specialties, ethnicities and sexual orientations to provide a place for students to ask questions and receive aid when they need it. Gaynair said that simply having this organization makes many POC students feel safer.
“Knowing that we are nice people but, if someone needs it, we will kick a door down makes them feel safe,” Gaynair said. “We don’t need to do that though, because people are nice and they want to help. The administration has wanted to help.”
One of the major concerns this organization has been working through is the university’s decision to arm certain campus safety officers. This decision was announced by the administration a few weeks into the fall semester on page 25 of the strategic plan. Since the announcement, growing concern has arisen because of the ongoing acts of police violence toward Black Americans, as was demonstrated so explicitly last summer.
Many who work at DIA have been in communication with the university about several of its policy decisions that do not take into consideration the tensions or discomfort they will cause among POC students on campus.
“As a team we are not super enthusiastic about the armed guards, especially considering the history of not only police but also armed campus personnel as students of color,” Costello said. “However, through several conversations, the school has seemed unwilling to change. Thus we are now focused on trying to ensure that students can be supported moving forward and constantly communicating student perceptions of the armed guards as time moves forward.”
Campus Safety Director and former Azusa police captain Paul Dennis said this is not a new decision and has been in the works for almost a decade.
Although the timing of the announcement seemed suspicious to many, due to its close proximity to the murders and subsequent protests that happened in the summer of 2020, when I sat down with Dennis, he explained that this decision was being made with other universities of a similar size for many years based on the advice of independent security firms.
“This decision was not made by Campus Safety alone, but involved the board of trustees, stakeholders and the president and his cabinet and was put in place to ensure that safety exposures were identified and best practices were used to fill the gaps that become apparent.”
Dennis did not elaborate on what those gaps were.Yet, he emphasized that not all Campus Safety officers would be armed but only those who had gone through rigorous training and were qualified to carry a firearm.
“We need to be prepared and equipped to respond to critical incidents that may occur on our campus,” Dennis states. “Whether those incidents be earthquakes, wildfires or crimes of violence and do so with sensitivity to the issues that are being discussed.”
Dennis outlined several ways in which negative incidents can be reported. One option is to go into the Campus Safety office and ask to speak to a supervisor. If the student is uncomfortable with speaking to Campus Safety directly, it is also possible to reach out to the community advisory committee and their chair Dr. Whittaker. Another alternative is to report the issue through Dr. Hall, who is the Chief Diversity Officer under the School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences.
Seeing the complexity of this issue is difficult. It is often easier to talk about these issues from only one perspective, however, issues like this are not often that simple. If we only approach these issues from one perspective, we are too likely to lose the humanity of those who see things differently. After my interviews with both DIA and Dennis, it is clear that they want to accomplish the same thing: student safety.
On one hand, there is an individual that is doing his best to protect the university and its students. On the other, students that have experienced the generational trauma of police brutality don’t think that arming police officers is the best way to do so.
The answer to this dilemma is still unclear. But what remains certain is that a support system needs to be put in place to help the APU community adjust to this “new normal” once universities transition back on campus. We must all find a way to both be safe and live together harmoniously.