On December 16, five campus police officers attempted to discourage three members of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) team from erecting a “Cops Off Campus” banner at 16 Bancroft Avenue, the UTGSU’s main office at UTSG. 

The banner was put up as part of the union’s campaign to remove Campus Police and instead direct funding to “meaningful community care.”

In a two-minute video of the interaction posted on the UTGSU’s Facebook page, the officers accused a UTGSU executive of being “aggressive,” asked the members what they were doing with the banner, and implied they were acting as “agents of the school.” 

Altercation with campus police officers

The executives believe that an officer followed them from outside the Campus Police building — where they were recording the launch of their Police Off Campus campaign — to the UTGSU’s main office. Outside the office, Lwanga Musisi, University Governance Commissioner; Ben Hjorth, Executive Member-at-Large; and Andre Fast, Executive Director were hanging a banner that read “Cops off Campus” and “#Police-FreeSchools.”

The video shows two campus police officers questioning the executives on what they were doing with the banner, leaving the executives to respond that they were within their rights to hang the banner on the UTGSU’s building. While the members were responding to the questions from the officers, one called them “aggressive,” asking, “Why are you so aggressive, guys?”

The officer repeatedly asked if the members planned to put up banners elsewhere, and another officer told the executives, “The only reason we’re here is that if the school does not want you to have that there, it’s our job as agents of the school to remove it.” However, the officer did not say if they were acting upon any specific directions from the school.

“No sooner had we begun fastening the banner to the fence, than a Campus Police SUV pulled up,” the UTGSU wrote in an email to The Varsity. “We carried on our business, and out came a Campus Police officer who began to quiz us on the content of our banner.”

“The officer asked to see our ID and called us aggressive for putting up the banner,” the UTGSU executives added. They further claim that, beyond the scope of the video, “Four additional campus police officers showed up in less than ten minutes… The five officers left after approximately 15 minutes after being told by their manager that we have a right to be there [putting up the banner].”

In addition, one of the two officers in the video does not put on a mask until asked to do so by the UTGSU executives. The UTGSU executives added that the officer was “not respecting social distance guidelines and not wearing a mask,” and they claimed that their request that the officer put on a mask “was turned down several times until other officers came to the scene.”

The UTGSU expressed frustration over the campus police officers’ response, writing, “Even over our repetitive attempts to de-escalate a seemingly escalating situation… the situation kept getting re-heated as the officer(s) kept accusing us wrongfully.” 

In response to The Varsity’s request for comment, a U of T spokesperson wrote, “Thank you for drawing our attention to this video. It is currently being reviewed by the relevant offices within the universityadministration [sic]. We are unable to provide further comment until this is complete.”

Police Off Campus campaign 

The UTGSU erected the “Cops Off Campus” banner as part of its Police Off Campus campaign, which aims to “redirect funding away from the Campus Police and towards meaningful community care.” Many U of T students, faculty, staff, and organizations have expressed a similar desire to defund Campus Police

The UTGSU executive members wrote, “We believe it is a misconception that Campus Police make students safe and in fact the Campus Police have and continue to make many students of colour, in particular Black and Indigenous students unsafe.” They cited cases where campus police presence decreased safety for students, such as when UTM student Natalia Espinosa was handcuffed by campus police officers while seeking help at the Health & Counselling Centre.

According to the UTGSU, campus police presence is threatening to marginalized students and is largely unnecessary. “Campus police services focus on minimal bylaw enforcement, opening offices when you have lost your keys, patrolling the hallways etc,” the UTGSU executive members wrote, adding that these tasks could easily be done by other employees at U of T.