Quote card by Opinion.

On Nov. 17, as University President Santa Ono was leaving after his speech at the Ross School of Business, he was confronted by a march of 200 members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan. This march, which kicked off our union’s contract negotiations with the University, featured speakers calling for a living wage and for a campus free from policing. Our march was trailed by four Division of Public Safety & Security cruisers.

Ono’s hasty departure presented an opportunity: Two GEO members held up a banner, created during GEO’s 2020 strike, to block Ono’s path and prevent him from continuing to ignore us. The banner read “FUND SAFETY NOT POLICE.” The underlining of “ICE” signals GEO’s current demands for codifying protections for international graduate student-workers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The two students were quickly pushed aside by members of Ono’s security detail, eager to shuffle off the disruption so he could return to business as usual.

Each year, the University of Michigan spends over $35 million on policing and security through its General Fund, Michigan Medicine and University Housing. While the University’s endowment reached a record $17 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic, essential student services (such as Counseling and Psychological Services, Services for Students with Disabilities and the Center for the Education of Women) remain underfunded, and the salaries of graduate students and other workers have not kept up with the rising cost of living in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.

This is why, in the fall of 2020, GEO went on strike for a safe and just campus. In the two years since, the University has failed to redirect funds from policing. It has instead used diversion and counterinsurgency tactics, such as starting a toothless task force on public safety and a scholarship in the name of George Floyd. It has also attempted to normalize policing across campus. Under the “Ambassadors Program,” the University sent DPSS officers and work-study students to enforce social distancing rules — a plan that was quickly canceled under pressure from the undergraduate Students of Color Liberation Front and the 2020 strike.

As we wrote in The Michigan Daily last year, “When it comes to campus safety, the University is trapped in an endless cycle of scandals and promises to do better.”

The University is quick to cry poor when it’s cutting budgets, freezing wages and raising tuition; yet the cost of policing continues to grow. DPSS currently receives over $35 million dollars annually from the University. But what do they actually do in and around campus with this enormous budget?

To answer this question, we obtained the daily activity logs of DPSS officers from January 2001 through July 2022. These data reveal several crucial facts that support the abolitionist call to dismantle U-M police and redirect its resources towards the life-affirming services that graduate workers, undergraduate students, staff, faculty and community members need.

First, the vast majority of DPSS officer activity is not in response to violence, but rather to “property crimes” (like a stolen bike or laptop), traffic violations or drug and alcohol use. In 2021, for example, there were over 200 police activity logs related to drug or alcohol use. Likewise, most arrests are for drug and alcohol offenses (33%), traffic violations (13%) or “disorderly” conduct (18%). “Disorderly” behavior includes people experiencing a mental health crisis, urinating in public, sleeping, resting or hanging out in public spaces (such as the Nichols Arboretum). Contrary to what the cops say, it is police involvement in such things that is a major source of violence in communities. These statistics show how DPSS officers criminalize poverty, displace the poor and effectively control who is “allowed” to be in or near campus — thereby further gentrifying the Ann Arbor area. 

Second, DPSS officers are involved in situations they shouldn’t be — and they make things worse. For example, campus hospitals are major “hot spots” for police activity. Michigan Medicine pays close to $15 million to maintain a DPSS presence in hospitals. As a result, people seeking care are harassed and arrested for things like possession of marijuana; the narrative “marijuana was found in patient property” appeared 128 times in the police logs between January 2022 and July 2022 alone. This is part of a long history of medical providers collaborating with police and other state agencies to criminalize or commit disabled people, those with unmet mental health and/or housing needs, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Queer and trans people and immigrants. For many marginalized groups, seeking care comes with surveillance, policing, punishment and control.

Policing in hospitals negatively impacts patient and community health outcomes. Police violate patient-provider confidentiality and trust. They also deter patients from seeking out necessary care out of fear of persecution by police as well as child or family welfare and immigration authorities. In the University’s case, we found that police are often called to handle suspected cases of domestic violence, child neglect or mental health crises (including suicide attempts). All of these are serious matters that police are ill-equipped to handle, and which require a non-carceral, non-police, community-controlled and anti-racist response.

Third, DPSS officers directly collaborate with other police agencies, from the Ann Arbor Police Department to the Washtenaw County Sheriff to ICE. Their activity logs reveal that DPSS officers have detained and turned people over to these other police forces, including ICE. Campus police are thus part of the larger system of racist violence that inspired the 2020 uprisings and GEO’s strike. The recent University task force on policing has failed to provide more information about these collaborations. The University also rewards and gives cover to AAPD cops. For instance, John Seto, the University’s current Director of Housing Security, was the Chief of AAPD when police shot and killed Aura Rosser, a Black woman, during a domestic dispute. (Aura had moved to Ann Arbor to find safe access to community mental health.)

Percentage of police activity between 2001-2022 that involves arrests, broken down by police activity type (excluding ambulance/fire calls). Absolute numbers of arrests shown above each bar graph. Courtesy of GEO.
Heatmap of UM Ann Arbor police activities in 2021 (excluding ambulance/fire calls). Most of the police activity is focused around campus and the University Hospital. Courtesy of GEO.

These are only three main takeaways from DPSS officers’ activities. For more, see the interactive map on the GEO website. You can use this map to see what DPSS officers do in the place where you work, study, teach and live — and to ask yourself whether this keeps you, and your communities safe. 

Yet these data are incomplete. The map does not show the activities of police forces that collaborate with DPSS, such as ICE or AAPD. The City of Ann Arbor has denied our Freedom of Information Act request for similar data on AAPD’s activities, and the city administrator, Milton Dohoney, subsequently denied our appeal.

The data are also incomplete with respect to DPSS officers’ activities. Critical information is missing, including the race of the people arrested by DPSS officers during each incident, which the DPSS website does not make available. We know these data exist because the Michigan State Police publishes aggregated statistics about arrests made by DPSS officers broken down by “race.” The University has denied our FOIA request for these data, and the University President’s office has rejected our appeal of that decision. In a letter dated Sept. 15, 2022, the Office of the President wrote that “the University is not required to make a compilation, summary or report of information, nor create a new public record, in order to respond to your request,” and pointed us to the existing DPSS website which doesn’t contain the information we have requested. 

This chain of events demonstrates that Ono is also the campus’s “top cop,” actively committed to concealing police activities amid calls for even a modicum of transparency. While the recent University task force on policing has called for more transparency, so far we have only faced institutional opacity. This active hiding of the racist nature of policing is intended to protect police power and undermine abolitionist efforts to build safe alternatives. 

But police power can and must be dismantled. Crucially, the U-M police force is relatively new. The campus police department was only established in the early 1990s. On a campus with a long and proud history of radicalism, University administration also hoped that police would crack down on the anti-racist student activism that had intensified in the late 1980s. Their demands have yet to be met.

Today, GEO members are committed to creating a safe and just campus for all, just as earlier generations of activists were. Our platform for negotiations with the University includes the demand that the University fund the proposal for a non-police, unarmed emergency response being explored by the City of Ann Arbor. Led by the Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety (CROS), the proposal would create a community-based program and hotline modeled on the best practices of crisis response teams across the country. GEO is proud to be among the more than 40 community groups — including mutual aid groups, housing justice groups and abolitionist groups such as Liberate Don’t Incarcerate — which have endorsed the plan.

DPSS’s more-than-$35-million budget can be put toward alternatives such as CROS, as well as toward other beneficial ends, including better wages for staff and student workers, better health and mental care, better support for survivors of sexual violence and housing for the unhoused. All of which would be preferable to a dangerous, bloated and racist police force, shielded by unaccountable administrators. 

The Abolition Caucus of the Graduate Employees Organization can be reached at abolitionchair@geo3550.org.