Housing and Residence Life’s harmful reliance on the Duke University Police Department

On January 14, a Duke University (DUPD) Police Officer killed a patient at Duke University Hospital. The civilian had gained control of a Durham police officer’s firearm and fired multiple shots in the emergency room. A DUPD officer, after seeing the patient’s gun raised toward the Durham Officer, responded by shooting the patient, who later died from bullet injuries.

DUPD’s Use Of Force policy authorizes lethal force in situations where it is deemed “objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.” However, the totality of the circumstances–the struggle between the police officer and the patient– was, in my opinion, entirely preventable. What if an experienced mental health professional had been consulted, rather than an armed cop posing a threat of physical force? How did a patient manage to attack an on-duty officer during a medical evaluation? 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 police officer (although the previous shots did not strike anyone). But the civilian’s ability to kill instantly—and DUPD’s subsequent shooting—was only made possible by the existence of an initial law enforcement firearm. 

This shooting, and heightened public consciousness of rampant police abuse and violence, credited to Black-led organizing efforts, should force Duke to re-evaluate the necessity and behaviors of its heavily-funded police department. (I could not find an up-to-date online police budget, but in the fiscal year of 2006-2007, the University paid $9 million to its department, and given recent trends of increased funding, it’s reasonable to assume the budget has expanded significantly.) Instead, the DUPD officer who shot the patient was lauded by Duke as displaying “​​quick and selfless action to prevent potential harm to others.”

Duke deems an action of lethal force, caused by officers who interact with undergraduate students on a daily basis, to be selfless. This response is not only frightening; it actively promotes police brutality toward students, staff and Durham residents. 

DUPD’s jurisdiction also includes Duke’s campus, and as an undergraduate and former resident assistant (RA) at Duke, I’ve witnessed the majority of police-student interactions occur as a result of Housing and Residence Life (HRL) protocols. 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 DUPD as a resource 12 separate times and includes a link to the department’s safety report. And it’s not just talk: RAs are also instructed to call the police by their housing deans and Residence Coordinators (RCs). 

One requirement of RA orientation this fall was a 30-minute session with the DUPD Chief John Dailey, who stressed the necessity of a positive relationship between HRL and the police department. A fellow RA, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said this of the session: “We meet with Duke police and they explain instances where we should call them.” 

What are some of these should-call instances? Mental health crises, rowdiness, drug use, destruction of property—all solvable by de-escalation techniques used by a trained, non-police staff member. Nonetheless, RAs are required to follow protocol, and DUPD responds to many housing crisis situations. 

Testimonies from previous and current RAs demonstrate that police bring no added value when called, and more importantly, can cause harm to students. 

Former RA and Young Trustee Doha Ali, Trinity ‘21, describes an experience interacting with DUPD during an Emergency and Medical Services (EMS) call. (It is standard procedure for DUPD to also respond to situations requiring EMS.) Ali says that “a student was intoxicated. They’d fallen off the toilet. While we were waiting for EMS to come … 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 their on-call experience during Duke’s infamous COVID East Campus party. “HRL didn’t want the gatherings to happen, but the RCs also did not want to quash [the gatherings] themselves, so they instead told RAs to call DUPD.” 

Ali responded to another call wherein a resident of color was undergoing a mental health crisis. She called the RC on call, who, not wanting to confront the scene, instructed her to call DUPD. Ali felt that the officer’s presence might be traumatic. And when the police officer arrived, Ali said, “he was standing awkwardly in the corner while I was talking to her. I didn’t feel like I could have that full connection.” 

The first anonymous RA also had a negative interaction with DUPD in the midst of a resident mental health crisis. The RA, following standard protocol, called EMS, and the police entered the room before EMS had come to the scene. The resident was “very uncomfortable with police being there, so she asked them to stand outside of the room.” The police also arrived before the RA, so the resident initially was forced to be alone with armed DUPD officers. The RA walked to the scene to evaluate and found the police officers joking and chatting amongst themselves, seemingly oblivious to the gravity of the situation. 

My experience with DUPD was no different than those described by the three RAs above. This fall, I responded to a situation in which a male student had thrown heavy objects from the fourth floor balcony of 300 Swift Apartments into the courtyard, putting other residents in danger as they were walking to their rooms. When I went to the courtyard to evaluate the damage, the resident threw another object from the balcony. I called the RC on call and expressed a feeling of danger. The male RC minimized my concerns and instructed me to threaten to call DUPD on my resident, despite my discomfort with a nighttime solo confrontation. A few moments later, DUPD arrived — I assumed that the security guard had phoned them due to the commotion — and took notes on the situation, offering no support and needing help with documentation. Within five minutes, the officers had left the scene. The situation was never de-escalated. HRL also asked its housekeeping staff to clean up the mess at around 4 a.m.. 

When interacting with law enforcement, as in all of the aforementioned situations, residents might not know their rights. Students’ living space is protected by the Fourth Amendment; “Students cannot be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure by the police even when living in on campus housing.” However, since this policy is not easily accessible  mentioned within the Student Handbook, residents may be unaware of their right to decline a police request to enter their room. 

Contacting DUPD is not only detrimental to residents but to RAs involved in reporting the incidents. Ali says that police can “escalate situations by not their actions, but just their presence.” Furthermore, “They [HRL] haven’t thought: Do RAs themselves feel safe interacting with the police?” 

There’s no denying it: policing harms students. I’m definitely not the first person to say this–the Duke Black Coalition Against Policing worked tirelessly to start the conversation about on-campus police abolition. The incompetency of and harm perpetrated by DUPD in these testimonials is not exceptional; policing is a system that was founded and fundamentally based on the usage of violence to enforce white supremacy.

Policing on campus should be replaced entirely by peer support and specialized professionals, but I know this action would never happen immediately. The first step, however, could be severing the relationship between DUPD and HRL, including ending RA status as mandatory reporters. (A mandatory reporting policy requires an RA to report any victim report of sexual misconduct, even from their friends, to the Title IX Coordinator without their consent, potentially involving law enforcement.) Admittedly, this is a hard ask: the first anonymous RA tells me that for any change, HRL needs to finally become open to criticism, rather than prioritizing its image. 

But student voices have more potential than we know to enact change. Unionization of RAs would help students leverage power to enact 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 scared of undergraduate unions/alliances with workers, because administration has less room for retaliation). If RAs were to go on strike, HRL would not have the capacity to fire them en masse unless the department hired hundreds of students immediately. Students advocating for and pressuring HRL daily to reconsider their system of punishment is also important. 

Additionally, Duke is trying desperately to promote its new QuadEx system, which pushes residential living and learning communities. Even in the interest of Duke’s image, policing on campus and punitive measures are deeply counterintuitive.  

I’m writing this article, in part, as a reaction to DUPD’s shooting, which displays my own disconnect with non-fatal instances of police brutality and its protection of white supremacy. It should never, ever take a death of a human being for us to start listening to justice advocates and abolitionists. To Duke admin, its endowment and trustees, and HRL: please stop spending millions of dollars to harm your students. Just take care of us instead. 

Lily Levin is a Trinity junior and social media editor for the Opinion section. 


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