Blazing de-bullshitification of the arguments for militarized campus police forces

UC Davis music professor Bob Ostertag has written a savagely brilliant editorial in the Huffington Post, denouncing the use of military-style force by campus police, in particular the now-infamous point-blank chemical weapons attack on peaceful students on the UC Davis campus. Ostertag dissects the "health and safety" arguments put forward by the administration, the excuse that "no other options" were available to the administration, the "outside agitator" fearmongering, and the intellectually dishonest equivocating of passive, nonviolent resistance with violence. Xeni linked to this in passing this weekend, but it is such a blazing piece of de-bullshitification that I want to give it its own post.

Could Chancellor Katehi please explain what "serious health and safety concerns" were posed at Davis that were absent at Columbia? The only thing that involved a "serious health and safety concern" at Davis yesterday was the pepper spray. I just spoke with a doctor who works for the California Department of Corrections, who participated in a recent review of the medical literature on pepper spray for the CDC. They concluded that the medical consequences of pepper spray are poorly understood but involve serious health risk. As with chili peppers, some people tolerate pepper spray well, while others have extreme reactions. It is not known why this is the case. As a result, if a doctor sees pepper spray used in a prison, he or she is required to file a written report. And regulations prohibit the use of pepper spray on inmates in all circumstances other than the immediate threat of violence. If a prisoner is seated, by definition the use of pepper spray is prohibited. Any prison guard who used pepper spray on a seated prisoner would face immediate disciplinary review for the use of excessive force. Even in the case of a prison riot in which inmates use extreme violence, once a prisoner sits down he or she is not considered to be an imminent threat. And if prison guards go into a situation where the use of pepper spray is considered likely, they are required to have medical personnel nearby to treat the victims of the chemical agent.

Apparently, in the state of California felons incarcerated for violent crimes have rights that students at public universities do not.

Militarization Of Campus Police (via Beth Pratt)


  1. Be careful, Cory… too much blazing de-bullshitification will collapse the United States since it runs almost entirely on refined bullshit.

      1. We’re not even getting the good, refined bullshit anymore.

        Agreed, nowhere near as refined as the 1950’s

    1. You are right, Mordicai, but you don’t go far enough – the reason that the establishment respects convicts more than students is that convicts are part of the workforce. In fact, they are just this side of slave labor, getting paid pennies for making tons of products (like 30% of the office furniture manufactured in the U.S.) that create huge profits for corporations, excuse me, I mean people.

  2. The “serious health and safety concerns” relating to campus protests seem to translate, once the weasel words are stripped away, as, “nice group of students you have there. Be a shame if anything happened to them.”  It’s all for the students’ protection, with “protection” being used in the sense it has when “racket” follows.

    That said, I’ll follow with the obligatory authoritarianism: We need the government’s protection. So we have to put up with everything the cops do, because they’re just doing their jobs and we need them to protect us.

  3. Sorry, I have to call bullshit on the pics Prof. Ostertag used, because they are used out of context. The Columbia student is being perp-walked in an already controlled setting, so an unnecessary show of force is not needed. The contrast he tries to draw does not hold up. If a similar protest situation were occurring on the Columbia campus, they would, being the ivy league school that they are, would call in the NYPD, who would show up in riot gear. The Columbia cops likely make much more than the NYPD grunts and do 90% less work, which is the real travesty. The gaffe with the pics doesn’t ruin his overall point, but it creates an unnecessary distraction.

    1. I think the point still stands- as he pointed out, the daily carry of the cops who made that arrest doesn’t include much in the way of weapons or armor, and it is still sufficient for dealing with most instances of genuine criminality.  I suspect the arrest was made by a man not much differently equipped than the man marching him out, given that I’ve seen a couple unarmed arrests in locales where the cops don’t ordinarily carry.  After all, the average altercation is fundamentally a negotiation- a cop could pull me over and be buck naked, save for his badge, and I’d still be compliant, given that as soon as he’s spotted me, he’s able to call up his friends and the DA if I make this exchange hard for him.

      1. It depends on if the Columbia officer is actually a lieutenant or detective rather than a front line grunt, too. Grunts don’t usually get to make the perp walk, even though they do the bulk of the work.

    2. He did however also share a story about how a protest of the exact same nature was held at Columbia and never was a riot cop seen during the weeks- long protest. At Davis, it seems like riot cops were the first call made, with violent reaction by said cops being the only moves considered.

    3. >The Columbia student is being perp-walked in an already controlled
      > setting,  so an unnecessary show of force is not needed

      By definition, an unnecessary show of force is *always* not needed… since after all, “unnecessary” means  “not needed”.

      It’s a sad comment on what the world has come to that that sentence is even intelligible, and that (I presume) you didn’t notice that it’s doublespeak. (Or maybe you did, and my sarcasm detector is malfunctioning?)

      Not to say that your main point is necessarily  incorrect. My own opinion on that is that the Occupy protests have met with such varied responses that it’s impossible to predict how any particular city, university, etc will react, so maybe you would turn out to be right about Columbia and maybe not.

      I just find it sad that what I take to be the root meaning of  your sentence- that a massive overkill level of violence is sometimes justifiable because of its effectiveness- is a common enough belief that it can be coded into a phrase that otherwise makes no sense, and people will understand what the nonsense purports to mean.

  4. I’m actually considering applying for a teaching position at UC Davis. It saddens me to know that even if I got the job my starting salary would be about half that of Sergeant Pepper’s. Nice to know I’d have coworkers like Professor Ostertag though.

  5. I’d like to see a study of the abuse of “serious health and safety concerns” and other cop-outs. Certainly the sawdust left by the q-tip 8 qualifies as an example of the abuse of police guidelines as well. Its seems everyone knows it happens but there isn’t a comprehensive study to point to. Interestingly these kinds of “gaming the law” behaviors are also attributed to politicians and the wealthy (in terms of taxes and appropriate financial transactions) but also not closely examined as a trend or cultural behavior.

  6. Bravo. I find myself in perpetual state of wondering just what combination of Milgram-esque enabling, and bad training, and personality (was it just in my high school that the people that said they wanted to be cops were folks you hoped would get arrested by the cops?,) leads police to suffer such epic bouts of senseless territoriality. In what world does it makes sense to respond to some variety of loitering with anything that causes pain, or risks injury or escalation? There is essentially no amount of inconvenience that some kids could induce by blocking a sidewalk that tallies to the pain of getting maced. As the author says, I figured this was a pretty standard script at this point- have a cruiser hang around, cuff anybody that starts spraypainting the furniture, have the medics pass out water and fix up scuffed knees, and wait.  This whole paramilitary mindset- of protesters as obstacle to be cleared, and less-lethals as an expedient replacement to talk and firm grasps- is crappy policing on entirely too many levels.

  7. I give thanks that we still have the right to express ourselves about the sorry state of our corrupt government and the police tactics it uses to supress our protest. This is just the one they did not get away with, folks. I have been speaking with a friend in NY who was punched in the face by a copy just for trying to assert her right as a member of the media to be there. No criticism of police tactics in NYC. No big outcry. And of course the question few ask in the media or our elected reps: “To serve and protect who?”

     Let’s face it: the Occupy movement is our last hope to take back our society by the plutocracy that, through the legal bribery “donation” system owns 80% of our Congress and most state legislatures. That’s why we need to http://www.Occupy  in the 2012 election, to use our social networks to elect citizens with integrity (who refuse corporate donations) to the House of Representatives nationwide. We need to use our social networks to become, and support, candidates who will stand for the 99%. The window is closing…let’s look to give thanks, next year,m to a government for the people! 

  8. Campus cops would love to be regular police officers but they aren’t qualified. Either they can’t score high enough on the exam or they have real head problems. They’re ok for checking if doors are locked but beyond that not much.
    One state college I once worked in brought in real cops to handle the graduation traffic. The locals were too few and couldn’t be trusted.

  9. I’ve spent a little time with study concerning police and tactics and have to say that much of the violence that happens today can be traced back to the 1970 NYC police dept. when they had to change hiring guidelines .  Once upon a time you had to be 6′ tall to become a police officer,,,then after a couple of lawsuits centered around fairness and discrimination of women and short people NYCPD had to hire “Midgets”.  No longer did a giant slap a truncheon in the palm of his hand and the mob paused mid swing, you now had tightly wound 5’4″ men and oft timid women ,(mostly men), itching to start laying about with a club or pulling a handgonne  and shooting someone.  When these hiring guidelines went Nationwide brutality went up because people were no longer afraid of “Jolly Green Giant” with a tree trunk.

    1. Hey! You know whose fault it is? The people pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.

      Get. Over. It. If you disagree with the fair representation of the 99% (Hey, that’s you, weird!), own that statement. We’ve been getting fed rationalizations here for months. It doesn’t work.

      Do you know why we don’t blame small-framed women for domestic violence? Because that line of reasoning is insane? Yeah, that’s it.

  10. Why are there even campus police at all? 

    Is it because many students live on campus in the US?
    And demidan, are you basically saying that police brutality is the work of ‘PC gone mad’ because the police department was forced to hire short people and women, and thus enlist a bunch of Napoleons into their ranks? 


    I’d suggest there was plenty of  police brutality before the 1970s when those dirty leftists ruined the police department by demanding an end to discrimination. Especially if you happened to not be a particular ethnicity. 

    The other implication in your post is that police violence is the fault of the victim because they are no longer afraid of the mere presence of a giant cop and so the poor boys in blue have to use actual violence instead of mere intimidation.

  11. Campus Police make sense on some campuses.  Several UCs are research hospitals, and you definitely want cops on the spot given the fact that there are large deposits of narcotics, etc. scattered all over the place.  Universities are also a huge target for theft, although most of it seems to be done by employees. 

    When I was at UCSF, the campus police were described as State Troopers, which should mean that they’re more highly trained than many local police would be.  They also tend to spend their shift walking around interacting with staff and visitors.  In the hospital setting, I would expect a cop to be mildly terrified by an angry physician or staff member.  But, SF is probably an exception.

    1. That is a surprisingly weak defense of campus police. You seem to be starting from the p-o-v that “of course we have to have them” and then working back to provide any justification.

      For comparison: British universities do not have campus police. Not the University of Cambridge, not Oxford, not even the polys like Anglia Ruskin. Our universities don’t need police and they are every bit the research establishment of US unis.

      Our police don’t need guns either. You should try that as well. I understand your gun culture, but face it the police will always win any arms race, there are more of them than you and their mentality is to get revenge by any means, legal if possible, illegal if not. Best not make it easy for them,

Comments are closed.