On January 14, a Duke University Police (DUPD) officer killed a patient at Duke University Hospital. The civilian had taken control of a Durham police officer’s firearm and fired several shots into the emergency room. A DUPD officer, after seeing the patient’s gun pointed at the Durham officer, responded by shooting the patient, who later died of gunshot wounds.
The DUPD’s use of force policy permits lethal force in situations where it is deemed “objectively reasonable having regard to all of the circumstances”. However, the totality of the circumstances – the fight between the policeman and the patient – was, in my opinion, entirely avoidable. What if an experienced mental health professional had been consulted, rather than an armed cop threatening to use physical force? How did a patient manage to attack an on-call agent during a medical expertise? Why was there a gun in the emergency room in the first place?
It is impossible to speculate whether or not the civilian intended to kill or injure the policeman (although the previous blows did not hit anyone). But the civilian’s ability to kill instantly – and subsequent DUPD fire – was only made possible by the existence of an initial law enforcement firearm.
This shooting and heightened public awareness of rampant police abuse and violence, attributed to black-led organizing efforts, should force Duke to reassess the need and behaviors of its heavily funded police department. (I couldn’t find an up-to-date police budget online, but in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the University paid $9 million to its department, and given recent trends in the increase in funding, it is reasonable to assume that the budget has increased significantly.) Instead, the DUPD officer who shot the patient was hailed by Duke as demonstrating “quick and disinterested in preventing potential harm to others”.
Duke considers an action of lethal force, caused by officers who interact with undergraduates on a daily basis, to be selfless. This answer is not only scary; it actively promotes police brutality towards students, staff and residents of Durham.
DUPD jurisdiction also includes the Duke campus, and as an undergraduate and former resident assistant (RA) at Duke, I witnessed the majority of police-student interactions following housing protocols and Residence Life (HRL). HRL strives to “build positive communities that value learning, create new opportunities for faculty engagement, and generate positive social connections.” HRL’s website also highlights the DUPD as a resource 12 times and includes a link to the department’s safety report. And it’s not just lip service: RAs are also responsible for calling the police by their Housing Deans and Residence Coordinators (RCs).
One of the requirements of the RA orientation this fall was a 30-minute session with DUPD Chief John Dailey, who stressed the need for a positive relationship between HRL and the police service. A fellow RA, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, had this to say about the session: “We meet with Duke police and they explain when we should call them.”
What are some of these instances to call? Mental health crises, rowdiness, drug use, destruction of property, all of which can be resolved through de-escalation techniques used by a trained, non-police staff member. Nonetheless, RAs are required to follow protocol and the DUPD responds to many housing crisis situations.
Testimony from previous and current RAs demonstrates that the police add no value when called upon and, more importantly, can cause harm to students.
Former RA and young administrator Doha Ali, Trinity ’21, describes an experience of interacting with the DUPD during an emergency and medical services (EMS) call. (It is standard procedure for the DUPD to also respond to situations requiring EMS.) Ali says that “a student was intoxicated. They had fallen out of the toilet. While we waited for the emergency medical services to arrive…the DUPD officer turned to me and asked, ‘What should we do?’ »
DUPD is also called outside of EMS calls. A second RA, who also wishes to remain anonymous, describes his experience on call at Duke’s infamous East Campus COVID party. “HRL didn’t want the rallies to happen, but the RCs didn’t want to cancel either. [the gatherings] themselves, so they instead told the RAs to call the DUPD.
Ali responded to another call in which a resident of color was experiencing a mental health crisis. She called the RC on duty who, not wanting to confront the scene, told her to call the DUPD. Ali felt the officer’s presence could be traumatic. And when the policeman arrived, Ali said, “He was standing awkwardly in the corner while I was talking to him. I didn’t feel like I could have that full connection.
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The first anonymous RA also had a negative interaction with the DUPD amid a resident mental health crisis. The RA, following standard protocol, called EMS and the police entered the room before EMS arrived on the scene. The resident was “very uncomfortable with the presence of the police, so she asked them to stand outside the room”. The police also arrived before the RA, so the resident was initially forced to be alone with armed DUPD officers. The RA went to the scene to assess and found the officers joking and chatting amongst themselves, seemingly unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
My experience with the DUPD was no different from those described by the three ARs above. This fall, I responded to a situation in which a student threw heavy objects from the fourth-floor balcony of 300 Swift Apartments into the courtyard, putting other residents in danger as they walked to their rooms. When I went to the yard to assess the damage, the resident threw another object from the balcony. I called the RC guard and expressed a sense of danger. The male RC downplayed my concerns and asked me to threaten to call the DUPD on my resident, despite my discomfort with a solo nighttime confrontation. Moments later the DUPD arrived – I assumed the security guard had phoned them due to the commotion – and took notes of the situation, offering no support and needing help for documentation. In less than five minutes, the police had left the scene. The situation was never defused. HRL also asked their housekeeping staff to clean up the mess around 4am.
When interacting with law enforcement, as in all of the above situations, residents may be unaware of their rights. Student living space is protected by the Fourth Amendment; “Students may not be subject to unreasonable search and seizure by police, even when living in on-campus accommodation.” However, since this policy is not readily available mentioned in the student handbook, residents may not be aware of their right to refuse a police request to enter their room.
Contacting the DUPD is not only detrimental to residents but also to RAs involved in reporting incidents. Ali says the police can “aggravate situations not by their actions, but simply by their presence.” Moreover, “they [HRL] I didn’t think: do ARs themselves feel safe when interacting with the police? »
There is no denying that policing hurts students. I’m certainly not the first person to say this – the Duke Black Coalition Against Policing has worked tirelessly to start the conversation about abolishing campus policing. The incompetence and harm perpetrated by the DUPD in these testimonies is not exceptional; policing is a system that was founded and fundamentally based on the use of violence to enforce white supremacy.
Campus policing should be replaced entirely by peer support and trained professionals, but I know that action would never happen immediately. The first step, however, could be to sever the relationship between the DUPD and HRL, including ending RA’s status as mandatory registrants. (A mandatory reporting policy requires an RA to report any victim of sexual misconduct, even by their friends, to the Title IX coordinator without their consent, potentially involving law enforcement.) Admittedly, that’s a tough question: The first anonymous RA tells me that for any change, HRL must finally become open to criticism, rather than prioritizing its image.
But student voices have more potential than we know to bring about change. Unionizing RAs would help students leverage the power of adopting non-policing protocol (Duke is terrified of staff unions; they’ve spent millions fighting the Duke University Press Workers Union. And Duke is even more afraid unions/undergraduate alliances with workers, because the administration has less room for retaliation). If the RAs were to go on strike, HRL would not have the capacity to fire them en masse unless the department immediately hired hundreds of students. It is also important that students advocate and pressure HRL daily to reconsider their punishment system.
Additionally, Duke is desperately trying to promote its new QuadEx system, which is pushing the residential and learning communities. Even in the interests of Duke’s image, campus policing and punitive measures are deeply counterintuitive.
I am writing this article, in part, in reaction to the DUPD shooting, which shows my own disconnect with non-fatal cases of police brutality and its protection of white supremacy. It would never, ever take the death of a human being for us to start listening to justice advocates and abolitionists. To the Duke administrator, its endowment and trustees, and HRL: Please stop spending millions of dollars to harm your students. Take care of us instead.
Lily Levin is Trinity’s junior and social media writer for the Opinion section.