When University students get in trouble, they often end up receiving a visit from the Department of Public Safety. With so much responsibility vested in this department, it’s critical that the campus population be able to trust the job these officers are doing. But the University is abjectly failing its duty to ensure that there is an authority keeping DPS in line. The administration has allowed the DPS Oversight Committee to lapse into irrelevance by failing to provide for adequate representation of students, faculty and employees on the committee. This failure is in direct violation of state law, and the University must move quickly to right the staggering number of wrongs it has failed to address.
In 1990, state law gave four-year universities the right to establish their own campus police forces. This law came with an important caveat — any university that chose to establish a police force was obligated to also form a committee with the power to review police actions and decisions. The committee is legally required to have six members — two of each students, faculty and staff members — who are elected by the respective members of those constituent bodies. The University created DPS in 1992 and established the necessary committee, the DPS Oversight Committee, the same year.
But an investigation by the Daily revealed that the committee is all but incapable of fulfilling its basic function in several key ways. The committee meets only about once a year, and despite the fact that DPS receives between eight and 12 complaints per year, the committee typically only handles two of them. More egregiously, representation on the committee has not been determined in the manner that state laws calls for. The students on the committee are simply appointed by the Michigan Student Assembly. Voting for employee representation alternates between exclusively union and non-union employees each year. And there has been no election to determine faculty representation since 2000. Indeed, it’s hard to find a part of the law that the oversight committee isn’t breaking.
With respect to student representation, not only are student representatives appointed by MSA rather than elected in a campus-wide election, but the student seats on the committee have been empty for months at a time. This year, there was no student representation from May through November. This situation should be enormously concerning and frustrating for students. It’s outrageous that a committee designed to keep tabs on police who directly intervene in students’ lives isn’t making sure to include a consistent student voice.
With such a track record in mind, MSA President Abhishek Mahanti’s defense of MSA choosing the student representatives is dubious at best. The law calls for a student-wide election, not an appointment process conducted by student government representatives. Not only is this an obvious legal distinction, but it’s also an important practical difference. How can MSA be permitted to appoint representatives to such a committee when it has historically allowed the position to remain unfilled for months at a time?
In addition to being just plain wrong, MSA’s defense of this policy smacks of University administration over-involvement in MSA affairs. According to today’s front page story, when University professor Dr. Douglas Smith e-mailed the assembly with a concern about a grievance, he was invited to meet with MSA to discuss his issues — one of them being MSA’s appointment of students to the committee. Soon afterwards, MSA pulled an about-face and asserted that it was, without a doubt, following the law. The fact that the University appears to be forcing its legal defense upon MSA further undermines the credibility of the assembly and demonstrates the need for separate student elections to determine student members of the DPS Oversight Committee.
The University must act swiftly to facilitate campus-wide student elections and make sure that the faculty and employee elections are also taking place fairly. What’s more, students, faculty and employees should be demanding fair elections from the administration. DPS has a significant impact on the lives of everyone connected to the University, and this committee should be our method of guaranteeing that DPS is operating fairly. The fact that this committee has been ignored and made irrelevant sends the message that the University’s police force is not accountable to the people it is supposed to be protecting.
The University has no right — legal or otherwise — to employ a police force that lacks a robust oversight committee. Every member of the campus community should be calling for the University administration to reinvigorate the DPS Oversight Committee by guaranteeing fair, consistent elections, student, faculty and employee membership, and frequent meetings that truly address the grievances our community has with its police.
And if the University doesn’t take these steps immediately, it should expect — and deserve — a lawsuit from the state of Michigan.