A group of seniors at Carnegie Mellon University have spent months researching campus policing. Now, they’re calling on the university to improve the transparency of its police department, disarm officers in certain situations and make it easier to provide feedback to the department.

Four seniors presented the capstone project on Friday, outlining nine areas for improvement within the campus police department. Their work incorporates a survey of nearly 200 students and an analysis of the history of policing at the university, among other components. 

“Put simply, they’re doing a good job, there haven’t been any major issues of late, but there are improvements that can be made,” student Alistair McMillan said. 

In February, the university published the results of a third-party review of the police department’s policies and operations. The undertaking was cited in a progress update on CMU’s commitments to confront racism and promote equity and inclusion following George Floyd’s murder by a former Minneapolis police officer. 21CP Solutions, the consulting agency that conducted the review, issued 39 recommendations for improvement; they included clarifying and revising the department’s use-of-force policy and creating a more visible, online means for filing complaints. 

The students largely support the findings of 21CP Solutions. CMU states online that the university has begun implementing more than 60% of the recommendations from the agency, but it’s unclear which ones. Peter Kerwin, a spokesperson for the university, wrote in an email that the agency’s recommendations “have been implemented or are in progress.” 

Members of the police department participated in the students’ capstone project, with leaders of the Community Resource Unit being interviewed. 

“While we have yet to see the recommendations coming out of this particular project, we welcome student input as we seek to further support community safety and well-being,” Kerwin wrote in the statement.

Entering a cooperative agreement 

Both the students and 21CP Solutions have recommended that the campus police department have a more clearly defined relationship with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and provide more information to the public about its operations. 

Ananiah Pettis speaks during the presentation of a capstone about policing on CMU’s campus on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

The consulting agency recommended that CMU and its police department enter a memorandum of understanding with the city and its police bureau. Among other components, the agreement should define the campus police department’s patrol boundaries and outline “each police department’s authorities, roles and responsibilities when supporting each other in their operations,” according to the agency’s report.

At the time of the February report, the campus police department had informally sought to coordinate response strategies and share knowledge with other law enforcement agencies. But the agency said “there can be significant consequences” if officers and leaders from different departments are interacting for the first time in a crisis. 

“Confusion about responsibilities, lines of authority, and jurisdiction can complicate and adversely impact the overall ability of involved police departments to provide the types of public safety services required in those moments,” the report states.  

The students would like the university to enter a broader agreement, including not only the city police but also medical providers, rape crisis centers and neighboring universities. Kerwin did not state whether the university intends to enter into such an agreement.

Calls for transparency

Though CMU is a private institution, its police perform a public function that warrants greater oversight, said Jay Aronson, founder and director of CMU’s Center for Human Rights Science and the instructor for the course.

The students are recommending that the campus police department make public all policies and practices that would not compromise operations. The department’s website includes three bulleted summaries of policies surrounding use of force, impartial policing and “excited delirium.” In February, 21CP Solutions issued a similar recommendation about expanding information available on its policies.

CMU’s neighbor, the University of Pittsburgh, shares links to nearly 50 policies from its campus police department and highlights those of particular interest in red. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police takes a similar approach. Kerwin did not state whether the university would post the department’s policies online or answer why they have not been posted yet. 

Student Ananiah Pettis said that making all of the department’s policies public would be “a strong ethical step” that would show the department is holding itself accountable and allowing students to do the same.

Alistair McMillan (right) speaks during the presentation of a capstone about policing on CMU’s campus on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. Next to him is Emilia Schwallie.

If any of the CMU police department’s policies are sourced from private, for-profit companies or inspired by their offerings, the students would like the department to make that clear. Aronson said that for-profit companies seek to make their policies favorable to the departments they’re contracting with, not the community members that the police serve. 

The campus police department’s policies do not appear to be sourced this way, but the sources should be more transparent, according to the students.

Concerns over jurisdiction 

The students argue that citizens have a right to know the jurisdiction of their police departments and recommend that the campus police department concretely outlines its jurisdiction and and updates this information online. The department’s website currently states that CMU’s officers patrol property that is owned and leased by the university.  

Understanding jurisdiction is particularly important for safety, as students who live off campus may not know whether they should call the campus police department when they need help, McMillan said. He tried to map the department’s jurisdiction for the project but was unable to find information that would help.

“[Campus police] mentioned that students are constantly calling them with things they’re not able to respond to, and they just have to be rerouted through Pittsburgh PD,” he said. “Lord forbid there’s an actual problem that requires an immediate response.” 

Providing feedback on armed officers and their practices

As part of their research, the students created a survey to understand how their peers perceive policing at CMU. In all, they received 173 responses through random selection and direct outreach, including to organizations serving marginalized communities. 

The students said the demographics of responding students reflect CMU’s student body but noted that a limitation of their project was the number of respondents who were of marginalized identities. 

Isabel Brum speaks during the presentation of a capstone about policing on CMU’s campus on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

About 80% of the respondents said they were at least “moderately comfortable” interacting with the department, but most would like some of the police officers to be unarmed. Only about 12% said they want a fully armed agency. The students recommend that the department disarm its police officers when they’re not actively patrolling. Kerwin did not provide clarification on the situations in which police officers are armed.

“From the university’s perspective, [policing] can promote safety. But student well-being goes far beyond simply having officers on campus,” student Isabel Brum said. “Armed officers on campus can be intimidating to students and can come in between student wellness.”

Like 21CP Solutions, the students would like the department to improve its current mechanisms for receiving feedback. The bottom of the department’s “About Us” webpage states that community members looking to file a complaint can fill out a form, which can be emailed to the police chief, hand-delivered or sent to their office. All complaints will be investigated, according to the webpage.

Pettis said she hopes the project helps students feel more comfortable providing feedback and sparks an interest in policing and CMU’s policies.

“Just making sure that, as a student, your rights are being protected, and you’re being informed of your rights,” she said. “If something does go wrong, that you know where to go, and you know exactly what protocol to take to make sure that you are being heard.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

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Emma is a higher education reporter for PublicSource. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...