When we say “decriminalize UW,” we mean that the university must respond to the current crises — state violence against Black people, the COVID-19 pandemic, and looming budget cuts — by adopting measures to address long-standing inequities and injustices. Thousands of people and hundreds of organizations have signed petitions to defund UWPD and invest in Black life at the University of Washington. As colleges and cities across the United States, including the Seattle City Council, take unprecedented steps toward reimagining community safety and racial justice, President Cauce and other leaders at UW have failed to reconsider budget priorities, systemic practices, and symbolic representations of racial injustice on the Seattle campus.
Armed police officers do not afford safety to UW students, visitors, staff, and faculty. In the United States, policing has served as a fundamental tool in perpetuating white supremacy and settler colonialism, originally by targeting runaway enslaved peoples and defiant Indigenous communities. Though later in time, the UWPD was created in the 1960s to advance the same goal of maintaining these founding inequalities. The establishment of an armed police unit on campus in the 1960s, ostensibly to protect the ROTC building and other property, criminalized segments of the UW community, specifically students active in the Black freedom movement and the movement against the Vietnam War.
UW should spend its state- and student-funded budget to protect our community, not police it. Armed police officers do not prevent violence. Armed police officers create a militarized climate that intimidates and alienates BIPOC communities, in part through arrests for “trespassing” and “criminal impersonation” that target people who appear Black, poor, or houseless. Why do we need armed police officers to investigate stolen bicycles? More than 90% of the calls to UWPD are to report missing bicycles.
UWPD has grown exponentially over the last four decades. Even as resources for education and student life faced steep cuts, UWPD’s budget and personnel have expanded in size and scope. Although UWPD does not disclose its budget to the public, we know that the Office of Student Life allocates more than $8 million per year to UWPD. At the same time, UWPD repeatedly hired officers with disciplinary records, including the former police chief who is still on the payroll of the Office of Student Life. It was only after sustained demands from 10,000 members of the UW community and over 150 organizations that the administration committed to stop hiring officers who have been disciplined for ethics, use of force, bias, or other serious violations.
Now is the time to disarm and defund UWPD. Although making UWPD more accountable to the public, such as releasing its annual budget in a timely manner, would be an improvement over the status quo, it is not enough. Why does the University spend more money on hiring a new police officer (in excess of $100,000 with overtime) than a tenure-track professor in the College of Arts and Sciences?
Invest in UW Community Health
The BSU, UAW 4121 and other student organizations have pointed out the need for culturally appropriate mental health resources for UW students. While President Cauce insists that we should treat all community members in mental distress as violent and respond with armed police, evidence-based solutions suggest that the best medicine is prevention, not guns. Rather than place students at risk, let’s provide them with low-cost community health resources. Rather than escalate responses to welfare checks by officers trained to shoot people, let’s invest in a Safe Campus that responds to welfare checks with first responders trained in mental health.
As activists across the United States and the world demand a critical reckoning with the past, the University must confront its racism, past and present. The mammoth statue of George Washington, dedicated at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909, is perhaps the greatest symbol of that racist past. Not only does the statue venerate a prominent slaveholder, its origins trace back to a world’s fair celebrating empire and white supremacy and a fundraising campaign spearheaded by the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization equally committed to celebrating empire and white supremacy. The statue has no place in a University committed to educating “a diverse student body to become responsible global citizens and future leaders through a challenging learning environment informed by cutting-edge scholarship.”
Invest in Racial Justice and Black Studies
UW undergraduates only have to earn 3 credits towards “diversity” in general education, a measure implemented only in 2014 after sustained student advocacy. UW students deserve better. President Cauce’s Race and Equity Initiative and the more recent Black Opportunity Fund are symbolic gestures that do not provide a path to meaningful, systemic change. The University needs to make a long-term, institutional commitment to hiring more Black faculty, promoting Black Studies across academic units, and recruiting and supporting Black students.