Uncharitably dismissed by some as “toy cops,” college campus security officers may get somewhat more respect than Rodney Dangerfield, but not by much. So it was an unusual moment in the limelight for the SUNY New Paltz Police last week when officials from the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) of New York State came to campus last Friday to bestow a brass plaque and words of praise upon its members in a brief ceremony at the Student Union Building. “All of the officers of the SUNY New Paltz Police are proud to receive this award in recognition for our hard work and dedication,” said officer Adam Darmstadt.
But to SUNY New Paltz student activists and their supporters in the wider community, the occasion for the award was hardly a matter of pride, and demonstrators chanted, “Shame! Shame!” as campus police and PBA representatives filed out of the conference room and up the stairs afterwards. “We’re here because our school is Number One in the nation for drug arrests,” explained Rebecca Berlin of the New Paltz chapter of New York Students Rising, one of the organizers of the protest. “We think that the money and resources should be focused on violent crimes and assault on campus. Money is being funneled into arresting students for minor drug offenses while adjuncts are making poverty wages.”
The PBA decided to honor the SUNY New Paltz Police in response to “Drugs on Campus,” a recent report by Project Know — which Officer Darmstadt characterized as “a substance abuse organization that’s non-political” — analyzing data from the US Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education quantifying drug enforcement on college campuses across the nation with populations of 5,000 or more students. According to the study, SUNY New Paltz had the highest per capita rate of student drug arrests on campus: 13.9 per thousand students, translating to 105 arrests in 2013.
Statistics from the previous year show that New Paltz took a big leap from 107th place on the list to first, with only 24 drug arrests in 2012. “We believe it’s because of a crackdown,” said Berlin, who alleged that police officers conceal themselves behind trees and in other hiding places around the campus, lying in wait for passing pot-smokers. “It creates a level of fear among the students,” she said. “The police who are supposed to be protecting us are trying to arrest us.”
Officer Darmstadt characterized the campus police tactics as “just officers walking their beat, doing their job,” which is to enforce the college’s zero-tolerance drug enforcement policy. According to the statewide activist organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy, “SUNY New Paltz’s ‘no second chance’ drug policy is the strictest in the SUNY system, with two incidents of marijuana possession leading to mandatory expulsion. Most SUNY campuses have a three-strike policy.”
Police officials interviewed for this story all acknowledged that the vast majority of the on-campus drug arrests were for possession of small quantities of marijuana. “But we’ve had heroin arrests, needles, cocaine. Just last year we had that gun, right in the dorms,” said Officer Darmstadt, adding that the majority of police activity on the SUNY New Paltz campus consists of responding to medical and rescue calls.
Saying that the intent of the award — the first of its kind in New York State — was to “recognize these superb police,” PBA treasurer James McCartney, added, “Obviously there’s a certain prevalence of drug possession on this campus…Obviously the majority of the arrests are for small amounts of marijuana. But there have been some for Ecstasy, some for heroin.” Asked what campus police forces would do if New York State follows the growing national trend of legalizing marijuana, Officer McCartney said, “In New York, even the smallest possession of marijuana is illegal. If that changes, we’ll certainly honor the law.”
But in the view of the organizations who came to campus to protest the awards ceremony — which included the Black Students’ Union, the International Socialist Organization and the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) along with New York Students Rising and the Students for Sensible Drug Policy — there are much bigger issues that need to be addressed on campus than kids smoking joints. ENJAN spokesperson Odell Winfield drew cheers from the crowd of about 30 demonstrators by calling for “zero tolerance for rape and sexual assault” in America’s college towns. “To celebrate the War on Drugs is a travesty,” he said. “Why is there one police officer for every 300 students?… This campus doesn’t have a drug problem; it has an overpolicing problem.”
Winfield and other protestors also raised the specter of campus police possibly obtaining assault weapons. According to Brienna Perez, a SUNY New Paltz junior and senator for the Student Association, “Through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, all police departments are able to request for free anything left over from the war in Afghanistan and other wars…anything from body armor to tanks.” The SUNY New Paltz police, she alleged, have “already ordered armor. Now they’re after assault weapons.”
What are the next steps for the student protestors? “Writing legislation and talking to the SUNY administrators,” said Berlin. “But students have been trying that for years, and the administration has not budged.”
Will the day come when New Yorkers can stroll the streets – or campuses – toking on joints as freely as cigarette smokers are allowed to do today? If and when that happens, will SUNY New Paltz’s aggressive arrest and expulsion policy seem oppressive in retrospect, or merely a quaint relic of the past? Stay tuned, folks, because Dylan was right: The times, they are a-changin’.