Safety first — but for whom?
Rethinking community safety at UBC
Nathan Bawaan and Elif Kayali
Helena Miranda Ventosa
In late November 1997, more than 1,500 protestors gathered to protest the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference taking place on campus. They were protesting human rights violations from member states, particularly the Suharto government in Indonesia, and the growth of neoliberalism.
As protestors broke through security barriers, RCMP and Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers responded with what CBC called “liberal doses of pepper spray” and mass arrests. Footage from the protest shows one officer hitting a news camera while spraying a group of protesters.
The actions of the RCMP and Vancouver police quickly drew backlash from the public and the university.
In a follow-up inquiry, Judge Ted Hughes found that law enforcement officers acted inappropriately and “in some cases, inconsistent with respect for the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights [and Freedoms].”
Almost 25 years later, the RCMP still has a detachment along Wesbrook Mall as UBC’s Vancouver campus falls outside of the VPD’s jurisdiction.
While there has not been an altercation of the same magnitude between law enforcement officers and students since APEC, recent incidents of racial discrimination involving Campus Security and the RCMP and police brutality against BIPOC individuals — including incidents at UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan in the summer 2020 — have sparked a conversation around what a safe community means.
UBC security’s past
In June 2020, as protests spread across North America in response to racial discrimination at the hands of the police, UBC was reckoning with its own issues of police brutality against racialized people.
At UBC Vancouver, a Black grad student said that Campus Security wouldn’t let him into Buchanan Tower based on his race. A week and a half later, an Asian undergraduate student at UBC Okanagan filed a lawsuit against the RCMP after a January 2020 incident where an officer dragged her out of her room during a wellness check.
Following the incident at UBC Vancouver involving Campus Security, President Santa Ono called for an external review of the agency.
“Sometimes it’s really important to have an entity with an arm’s length from the institution take a look at what has happened,” Ono said when asked about the university’s motivation behind the June 2020 review.
The review — conducted by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP — called on Campus Security to revise its security-related policies, implement diversity training and increase the diversity of its force. Campus Security was also asked to improve its standard operating procedures and its staff’s connection with campus culture.
It also pointed out a lack of clarity around the nature of the relationship between Campus Security and the RCMP. The latter was left out of the external review because UBC does not have control over the RCMP.
Ali Mojdehi, director of Campus Security, wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey that Campus Security is committed to “creating a respectful environment, and a culture of diversity, safety and security” for the UBC community.
“This foundational commitment includes continually working with RCMP to improve services for our community. Campus Security is in frequent contact with RCMP and will continue to be so,” Mojdehi wrote.
He added that as Campus Security is not a “law enforcement or investigative body,” having a relationship with the RCMP is “imperative.”
Still, first-year arts student Julianna Yue said the UBC community has aspects that don’t feel safe, especially when it comes to being a student of colour on campus. Yue is Chinese and Cree-Métis.
One aspect of this issue is the presence of certain speakers on campus. In The Ubyssey's opinion section, Yue wrote a response to UBC Students for Freedom of Expression’s event in November 2021, where Lauren Southern — a far-right pundit who has questioned the genocide of Indigenous peoples at residential schools — was set to speak. UBC later cancelled the event.
Another aspect is law enforcement. While Yue hasn’t had a negative experience with Campus Security herself, she is concerned about the RCMP’s presence on campus.
“[It’s] concerning in a sense because of the RCMP’s involvement with residential school enforcement, with the execution of Louis Riel and definitely all the stuff with BIPOC lives mattering and all these threats that aren’t the same for white people,” said Yue.
In a statement to The Ubyssey, Chuck Lan, staff sergeant of the University RCMP, wrote that he and University RCMP Operations Officer Eric Baskette work on a committee with UBC’s vice-presidents, executive directors and Equity and Inclusion Office to develop an information packet for students and to create an outline of values for police awareness.
There is also a memorandum of understanding committee with the RCMP, Campus Security, the VP students and the AMS and GSS presidents that “provides a voice for students through their representatives,” according to Lan.
“I am very proud of our efforts put forth during my time as the Detachment commander of [the] University Detachment, and welcome any feedback that could assist students, staff or the public,” he wrote.
The mental cost of ‘security’
While both the RCMP and Campus Security emphasize their efforts to keep the campus community safe, their presence has a direct impact on some people’s mental health and sense of safety.
Dr. Sara Ghebremusse, an assistant professor at the Allard School of Law, said she actively avoids certain spaces on campus to avoid encountering law enforcement and security officers.
“I don’t want to paint all of them with a bad brush, but we know directly, the negative encounters that Black people have had with Campus Security and police in different spaces,” she said.
According to Ghebremusse, societies have placed cultural significance on having a physical police presence in our communities. But for her, safety depends on her “sense of trust” in others on campus.
“I need to know that other people on campus can value the presence of those on campus who look like me. Racial profiling wouldn’t take place if [people] viewed racialized people [and] Indigenous people as equals and not others,” said Ghebremusse.
Ghebremusse added that the presence of Campus Security is harming students in ways that may seem “innocuous.”
“No student should ever have to feel that just because of the way they look their presence on campus is questioned,” Ghebremusse said.
According to Ghebremusse, there seems to be a “disconnect” between the campus community’s understanding of student wellbeing and the resources available for students in distress, such as Campus Security and the RCMP.
“When you [are] trying to do something that is for the wellbeing of students … any institution that has the ability to use force should not be called in to do that,” Ghebremusse said.
Feeling unsafe on campus can lead to students experiencing serious health problems, according to Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee, a clinical psychologist registered in Ontario.
“When we think about BIPOC students … You can’t trust the very institution that is apparently created to keep you safe but you also can’t trust your community to be safe,” said Alani-Verjee.
“That reminder that our safety is not as important or that we continue to be perceived as the threat, that is immensely costly on our mental health.”
“Our attention is going to naturally be divided, and it’s going to affect our self-worth, it’s going to affect our sense of ability to see success,” she added.
Dimensions of safety
There are many dimensions to community safety besides one individual feeling unsafe.
Mars Johnson, a first-year arts student, was leaving the Pride Collective lounge on the second floor of the Nest one night late last year when he saw two law enforcement officers removing an unhoused person.
“They had some blankets and a coffee … they weren’t bothering anyone. They were just sitting there,” he recalled.\
He said the two officers didn’t use violence when asking the individual to leave the Nest, but he still felt uneasy with the exchange since it wasn’t near the building’s closing hours.
“It definitely rubbed me the wrong way to see someone get asked to leave an open building just because they were seemingly unhoused,” he added.
While Johnson said the officers looked like Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers or the RCMP, The Ubyssey could not confirm as the VPD, RCMP and Campus Security required the exact date and time to check their records.
Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, said in a statement to The Ubyssey that Campus Security regularly responds to calls concerning “unhoused individuals on campus who may be sleeping in private areas.”
“[Campus Security] also responds to calls from community members when there may be concerns around behavioural issues with unhoused individuals. In those instances, they will attend and assess the situation, which may result in the individual being asked to leave campus,” Ramsey said.
According to Ramsey, if the situation necessitates “police involvement” then Campus Security may call the RCMP to assist. If required, they might give first aid or call an ambulance and provide information on the nearest shelters.
University RCMP did not comment on its policy around unhoused people on campus.
Johnson thinks alternative methods like ensuring community members having access to “food, housing, safe consumption [sites] for drugs” are better for creating trust in communities than calling the RCMP or Campus Security.
Johnson said he and others in the Pride Collective — particularly those who are BIPOC — don’t feel safe when law enforcement officers are around.
“I almost never see them around. [But] when I do, there’s not really a good atmosphere … And I’ve just heard from a lot of people that it’s not the most comfortable [for them].”
What safety can look like in the
Twenty-five years after the APEC protest, and almost two years since the reported racial profiling incidents, the path to creating a safer campus remains uncertain.
For Johnson, education is key — whether that be anti-racism training for Campus Security or providing information on the housing crisis and the vulnerability of unhoused people to the broader campus community.
Ghebremusse said UBC needs to be more proactive in addressing concerns of marginalized people around issues of policing. She added that while the 2020 external review was helpful in addressing the shortcomings of Campus Security’s operations, it was not comprehensive.
“I think it was kind of a missed opportunity to really rethink security and sort of its presence on campus and what it’s really for,” she said.
“It really doesn’t institutionally get at the heart of the ways in which meaningful reform could take place.”
Reimagining community safety not only requires improving Campus Security’s operations, but also confronting privilege and power at UBC.
Ghebremusse said tackling the intersection of racial and socioeconomic privilege at UBC is a “serious undertaking” and would need to be a “top down reforming [and] reconceptualization” of the university’s operations.
Yue agreed, noting that those with privilege need to understand the impact Campus Security and the RCMP have on BIPOC people.
“I think a positive step would [also] be having Campus Security working maybe with some of the Elders from the Longhouse and just having open facilitation,” she added.
“But I know that’s also challenging because most people don’t feel safe around figures of authority [given] past issues and intergenerational trauma,” said Yue.
Alani-Verjee said that although it’s more common to think about safety as an “intervention,” that’s only “one version of community functioning.”
“When we can all be accountable and we can have an ethic of consent and mutual respect, we don’t need those same kinds of interventions or protocols,” Alani-Verjee said.
“We’re talking about common goals and common desires for one another to be well and protected and having the opportunity to thrive.”
Julianna Yue wrote for The Ubyssey’s “NDNs at UBC” column twice in 2021.