In the wake of this summer’s nationwide reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism, universities across the country have begun the difficult work of addressing their unique roles in perpetuating injustice. Fordham, for its part, now publicly claims to have taken up the mantle of reform. While not yet comprehensive, a few truly meaningful reforms have thus far been achieved, in large part thanks to the leadership of student organizations such as ASILI, the Black student alliance. Despite these positive steps, the administration remains deafeningly silent on one vital point of contention — its deep and troubling ties to the NYPD. To be certain, for as long as they continue to associate with an organization that so callously and systematically disregards Black and brown lives, the administration’s calls for justice will continue to ring hollow.
That the NYPD is responsible for perpetuating systemic racism is not an opinion — it is a matter of fact. In 2019 alone, they paid $68 million in misconduct suits, many of which involved racial bias incidents. And even after the department’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy was put to an end in 2014, Black New Yorkers still find themselves disproportionately targeted by police. For example, in 2019, 48% of people arrested were Black, despite making up only 24% of the population (compared to 11% of people arrested and 43% among whites).
Furthermore, the NYPD has rejected any attempts to address these issues. For instance, just this summer new regulations which made police misconduct records public and banned the use of chokeholds were met with lawsuits from police unions and widespread protests from officers, who feared that even such minimal, incremental steps toward change would entirely prevent them from doing their jobs. Officers have also been particularly violent towards those pushing for reform, having at various points throughout the summer beaten, verbally harassed and even driven a squad car through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters — all actions which, according to Police Commissioner Dermot O’Shea, constituted “an incredible amount of restraint” on the part of the officers involved. This blanket refusal to even so much as entertain the notion of reform, along with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the complex personal, sociological and economic circumstances that may lead an individual to commit a crime in favor of a cartoonishly simplistic, self-serving binary between “good guys and bad guys,” together support a more general conclusion — that “bad apples,” under this system, are the default rather than the exception.
Despite this, Fordham still persists in aligning itself with the NYPD. Almost certainly at the request of the university, patrols are nearly always visible in the Belmont area. And just recently, as part of the university’s official COVID-19 response plan, it was emphasized that the NYPD will be on hand to enforce pandemic-related regulations.
Less obvious, though, are Public Safety’s deep ties to the NYPD. By their own admission, the Department of Public Safety maintains a “close working relationship” with the 48th and 52nd precincts of the NYPD — who, according to newly-available misconduct data, actively employed 117 active-duty officers with at least one substantiated complaint against them as of June 2020. The current department head, Associate Vice President of Public Safety John Carroll, is a 30-year veteran of the NYPD, who “meets regularly with police commanders,” and, in a 2014 interview with the Ram, described close personal ties with top NYPD leadership. All Public Safety leadership, in fact, are former law enforcement officials, the majority having been recruited upon retirement from the NYPD. While Public Safety officials are not empowered to make arrests, they are empowered to investigate, apprehend and turn over any suspects to the NYPD if deemed necessary. The resultant environment is one just as steeped in the ingrained biases of the NYPD, and therefore just as frequently hostile to students of color.
Just as much as the NYPD’s security capabilities, though, the university capitalizes on the optics of their perceived “close working relationship.” This much is evident to anyone who has participated in any kind of campus tour or information session, wherein some (usually white, usually suburban) concerned parent will inevitably pose the question: “Is Fordham … you know … safe?” The implication, of course, being that Fordham’s location in the Bronx, in a majority-minority community, would make it inherently unsafe. And rather than challenging this false premise, the typical response will include a quick pivot to the ubiquitous presence of NYPD patrols in the area, or to Public Safety’s extensive experience in law enforcement, or to a white student’s firm assurance that no, they’ve never felt unsafe walking off campus! Where the gates provide a physical barrier, the highly visible NYPD ties serve almost as a psychological one — another tactic to separate Fordham from the community in which it exists, and to insulate white students from any real threat to our sense of privilege. And maybe, as a result, residents of the surrounding community are repeatedly treated as trespassers in their own neighborhoods, and students of color, particularly Black students, are repeatedly treated as outsiders at their own school. But, apparently, this has been deemed a fair enough price for white peace of mind.
So what can we do about it? According to ASILI, it is imperative that the university “acknowledge and unpack Public Safety’s ties to the NYPD,” and seek to cut ties from the NYPD in the same model as institutions like the University of Minnesota. A change.org petition entitled “Fordham University: Cut Ties with the NYPD,” with roughly 3,000 signatures to date, outlines a more detailed list of demands — specifically, that the administration:
These reforms are not radical. They do not begin to address the systemic failures that have led to these problems in the first place, nor do they address the vast potential benefits of divesting from campus policing and investing in other measures which would reduce or eliminate the need for it in the first place. But these items are immediately actionable. Other schools recognize this — looking to the University of Minnesota’s example, students across the country are now pressuring colleges to cut ties with police. And in New York, while the fight to remove police from public schools is ongoing, new regulations have significantly reduced officers’ authority to arrest students.
Rev. Joseph M. McShane S.J., president of the university, in a statement following George Floyd’s death, asserted that the “systemic and shameful disregard” for the lives of people of color “[goes] against everything a Jesuit university stands for.” I agree. But for as long as Fordham refuses to cut ties with the NYPD, we as an institution will be complicit in that injustice. The work of anti-racism is not easy, and, inevitably, it asks of us some form of sacrifice. Financially or reputationally, I am sure that this divestment will come at some cost. Now, the university must decide to whom it owes a greater loyalty — the few potential alumni donors it stands to alienate or the countless students of color it currently alienates. Until then, we as students must continue to speak up and continue to demand better from our school, in the hopes that, sooner rather than later, they will make the right choice.
Madison Hennessy, FCRH ’22, is a political science major from Briarcliff, N.Y.