A number of student organizations are endorsing a speaker series called “Imagining a Police-Free UofT,” which will aim to build community through discussions around policing on campus and its possible alternatives. Participating organizations include the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.
The speaker series comes in the wake of the university’s August 2021 decision to rename the organization formerly known as the Campus Police to the Campus Safety Special Constable Service, in order to make the group more “approachable, accessible and distinguishable.” Organizers were also motivated by the calls of Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people to hold the police accountable for police brutality and systemic racism.
The speaker series began on January 24 and held its second session on February 17, which was opened by Tenzin Butsang, a PhD Student at Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
“The police will give handshakes [to] white supremacists, but handcuffs to Indigenous land and water defenders; donations to far right groups, but destruction for encampments and poor communities,” Butsang said in their introduction. They added that community-centred care alternatives are the appropriate response to a failed policing system.
Desmond Cole — a Toronto-based journalist, activist, broadcaster, and the author of a number of books, including The Skin We’re In — also spoke at the event. So did Mimuna Mohamed, an anti-Black racism and anti-Islamophobia activist who spoke of their own experiences with police, both on and off campus.
“I wish there were people that genuinely could help stop crime,” Mohamed said in their remarks during the event. “The police don’t.”
The third session will occur on March 21 and will feature Beverly Bain, an assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies who teaches women, gender and sexuality studies.
In an email to The Varsity, UTMSU President Mitra Yakubi explained that the union is supporting this series because its members have shared stories about their negative interactions with Campus Safety and it wishes to help start a dialogue about this issue.
“The goal is to start a bigger conversation around police free campuses and what that looks like in terms of community support, resources, and building campuses that care for one another,” Yakubi wrote.
In its Instagram post advertising the event, the UTMSU also noted that although poor experiences with campus police might not be a “lived reality for everyone,” they do impact many students on campus who the UTMSU wishes to support.
However, some students disagree with the proposal to completely disband Campus Safety. Justine Hopkins, a political science major at UTM who commented on a UTMSU post about the events, wrote in a message to The Varsity, “Although student-led initiatives are important, many students feel safer with police who have certified experience patrolling the campus.” She is also concerned that such a move would leave the people who work for Campus Safety unemployed.
Campus Safety response
UTM Campus Safety wrote in an email to The Varsity that it “[provides] a critical service to the campus, maintaining a safe, secure and equitable environment where community members learn, work and live.”
It noted that in 2019, officers responded to more than 1,700 calls for service before the pandemic-related closures of campus. “Through services provided by Campus Safety, crime rates have decreased over the last five years,” wrote Campus Safety.
The UTM Campus Safety office is also involved in services for Remembrance Day, the Positive Space Campaign, orientation, and the United Way campaign. It is partnered with the Erindale College Special Response Team, a division of St. John Ambulance located at UTM.