by Josh Merchant
Seattle University is facing demands from students, faculty and staff to cut ties with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) amid ongoing protests over police violence, White supremacy, and the criminal justice system. The university currently has a relationship through its Department of Public Safety and its Criminal Justice program.
On May 30, a letter signed by over 100 faculty and staff in Seattle University’s College of Arts & Sciences questioned the relationship between Public Safety and SPD. Some Seattle University (also “Seattle U” or “SU”) community members have also spoken up on Twitter and on Instagram — one Tweet calling for the university to end this relationship has received dozens of retweets and over 100 likes.
Public Safety often works with SPD to address safety calls on campus and when crimes are reported within a certain radius of the university. According to an email sent by Seattle University President Stephen V. Sundborg, SPD had also been using Seattle U parking lots as a staging area for the officers involved in protest response in Capitol Hill. However, according to Sundborg, Seattle U has asked SPD to stop using its campus for this purpose.
Director of Public Safety Craig Birklid declined an interview with the Emerald but issued the following email statement with regard to the other elements of Public Safety’s relationship with SPD:
“Seattle University and Seattle University Public Safety [have] an overall responsibility to work with both the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle Fire Department on issues of campus safety. We will continue to work in constructive ways to help maintain campus safety with our SU community as well as our greater neighborhood community, including the Seattle Police Department.”
Within Seattle University’s Criminal Justice department, some faculty members are former officers with SPD, and the department often hosts current officers as guest speakers in classrooms. According to several students, classes often involve working directly with police officers, whether through tours, ride-alongs, or officers grading academic work.
The university’s Criminal Justice department did not sign the letter from the College of Arts & Sciences, nor did any of its faculty. To discuss this decision, as well as to address calls from students and community members to reevaluate its relationship with SPD, the department hosted two listening sessions on June 5.
Graduating Criminal Justice student Olivia Crawford attended both sessions. She believes that the program should cut ties with SPD.
“I was frustrated with the fact that we do not have basic faith in a criminal justice system that is incapable of trying to get the whole justice,” Crawford said. “If we can’t hold police officers accountable, no one is going to be able to have faith in it.”
Crawford said that several police officers of a variety of ranks have spoken in classes, and she reported that a few of her classmates have been on ride-alongs with current officers.
Another graduating Criminal Justice student, Olivia Wenzlick, also attended the listening sessions and said that the department has a very close relationship with SPD. She said she felt uncomfortable with some of the interactions she had in class.
“Sophomore year, I think it was in my criminology class, we had a tour of different crime hotspots, and then we had a tour of the precinct,” Wenzlick said. “It seemed like the term ‘crime hotspot’ was coded for more homeless people or more people of color. I don’t know, it just felt really slimy.”
As a department involved with SPD, Wenzlick said that she found the Criminal Justice curriculum to be very “cop-centered,” and she said that many guest speakers would orient the conversation around public failures to understand the police, rather than how police might be failing their community.
Crawford said she also encountered this attitude, and she found that this cop-centered position cultivates an “us-versus-them” mentality that she sees as problematic. She said that so long as the police see themselves as immune to the law and separate from the community they serve, there is no possibility for reform.
“You cannot have an us-versus-them [mentality] because if you’re protecting ‘us,’ who was the ‘them’ that you are not allowing to be in your culture? That’s what I want to know,” Crawford said.
She said that she often saw this us-versus-them mindset reinforced in her Criminal Justice classes. She challenged it in a discussion post in an online class about prisons, but her professor defended this mentality.
“My teacher was saying, to some extent, it is good to have that because you don’t want the inmates rolling over you and getting too much power,” Crawford said. “How much power can they get? That mentality is harmful. There’s no other way to set it up.”
Crawford also advocated for incorporating sociology courses into the Criminal Justice curriculum, particularly because she said she frequently encountered classmates with “closet prejudices.”
“Sometimes we would do group work so you would hear their opinions and I’m just like: ‘and you’re going to be a police officer? I don’t want you policing,’” Crawford said. She believes that open discussion of critical race theory, social welfare, and sociology of race could combat these prejudices.
Wenzlick too emphasized the importance of incorporating sociology into Criminal Justice programs and said that it was only in her classes that were cross-listed for social work students that she encountered the concepts of prison and police abolition. One class Wenzlick referred to was taught by Criminal Justice Professor Carmen Rivera. In an email to the Emerald, Rivera said that she teaches both abolition and reform in her classes because she believes there’s value in both concepts.
In terms of her department’s relationship with SPD, Rivera said in her email that, in her own personal opinion, the department should not cut ties with SPD. She made clear that this opinion is not necessarily the official stance of the department.
“In my opinion, Seattle University’s Criminal Justice department has the resources and tools to do the reformation work that is still very necessary,” she wrote. “The research and study done by those in the department help the betterment of policing. Personally, the idea of cutting ties with SPD is more performative allyship than constructive. If we want to see effective and impactful police reform, real reform, the Criminal Justice department can’t cut ties with the Seattle Police Department.”
Criminal Justice Department Chair Matthew Hickman declined an interview and did not provide a statement prior to the publication of this article.
Seattle U Provost and Chief Academic Officer Shane Martin would not speak on the Criminal Justice department’s relationship with SPD, but he said that the university as a whole is exploring ways to incorporate anti-racist curricula into core classes, which all students at Seattle U are required to take.
He also said that on a college level, different schools within the university have updated their strategic plans to diversify curricula and incorporate antiracist material. He said that this work has happened over the past several years, and that he intends to expand it on the university level. Martin said that the university is also exploring ways to more actively recruit faculty and students of color.
“There have been some very positive movements in the last four years. And yet, it’s not enough,” Martin said. “We need to go deeper.”
Crawford believes that much of this antiracist work needs to address the institutional racism that exists within Seattle U and which the university perpetuates. She said that this is essential before the university can address police and prison violence.
“Seattle University is a predominantly White institution,” Crawford said. “That is a part of institutionalized racism the same way police brutality is. And Seattle University has to look in the mirror first before they can try and go be a savior to SPD.”
Wenzlick echoed much of this sentiment, and she said that within the criminal justice department, the majority of the students and faculty are White.
But beyond Seattle U, Crawford emphasized the need to redistribute resources to social programs that she believes can better serve the community. And for her, this work starts with investing in therapy, housing, and infrastructure.
“We don’t need more police. We don’t need more reinforcement. We need therapy and help. And that’s not with the police. It’s just not capable of doing that.”
Josh Merchant is a Seattle-based journalist and recent graduate of Seattle University with a degree in Psychology. He can be found on Twitter, he can be contacted here and his other work can be found here.
Featured image by Joe Eastham.