What it takes to start understanding the history of police on campus, and why it matters.
Photos courtesy of UW-Madison Archives.
My job is to research racism, to find the historical patterns that undergird our current racial inequalities, and make them accessible and available to the public. In the past, my work focused on housing discrimination in Minneapolis, exposing the ways that redlining and racial covenants contributed to a racially segregated present in the city. In my current position as the Public History Project Director at UW-Madison, I lead a project uncovering the histories of racism and discrimination at the university. Historical research like this is never easy. Too often, powerful people and the institutions they serve obscure their cruel actions through bureaucracy, subterfuge, and sometimes, through restriction, physical inaccessibility, or the willful destruction of records. But as historians who research racism will tell you, we persevere because we believe this history matters. We believe that knowing this history can profoundly shape the way we fight to dismantle racist systems of oppression.
Recently, the Public History Project and its student researchers were tasked with uncovering the history of the UW-Madison Police Department (UWPD). When we began the research in January of 2020, I knew it would be challenging. But what I didn’t know was just how difficult this work would become. It was not only the task of accessing, interpreting, and publishing our research that would pose unique and multifaceted challenges. Instead, what we could not predict had the most profound impact on our work—the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department and the uprising that followed in the summer of 2020.
Researching police departments is a complicated business. The intimate nature of police records, the secrecy of police structures (and in this case—university structures), numerous departmental reorganizations, thousands of police personnel records, the various city, county, and state records kept, and the poor, often inaccessible, archival records all contribute to make this work even more difficult. At some point, as a researcher, you are forced to ask yourself: With this many hoops to jump through, can we ever get a clear picture of this history? The answer is pretty obvious to most who end up researching complicated topics and institutions like policing. No. We may never know this history. It would be much easier to simply not research it. To focus on archival collections that are better organized or easier to access. To let our messiest institutions and the powers that be remain unquestioned, unexamined, and unchanged. But we wouldn’t be very good historians if we did that, so many of us fight on.
These archival complications leave our historical understanding of the police, often (but not always) woefully lacking. Our research of the UWPD is surely lacking. We struggled to uncover this history in the UW Archives. For a large part of our research in the archives, we wrongfully assumed the only records that existed were newspaper clipping files—which only covered the 1980s through the early 2000s—and UWPD-produced annual reports from 1977 to 2014. A search of the archival records using terms like “protection & security,” “campus police,” or “police department” pull up only these records. Even a search of Chancellor’s Office files and Board of Regents files only pulls up individual folders with sparse memos and letters, most of which deal with the Madison Police Department, not the UWPD.
In the process of brainstorming where these documents could possibly exist, a friend said to me: “Well, these people have to report to someone, no?” It was here that we traced the departmental reporting structure of UWPD to the Vice President of Business and Finance records. And it was in these records where we found a treasure trove of documents dating from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, much of which our published research focuses on.
The haphazard, disorganized, and incomplete archival record of the history of UWPD reflects the university’s insecure connection with campus policing. It is an ever-changing department, ripe with reorganizations, turnover, and controversies, all of which lead back to a central question—does the university need a police department? From the archival records, it is clear that this is a question the university has never truly grappled with, and surely the struggle to document this history exacerbates this problem.
Yet, even with this span of two decades well covered by the historical record, we are missing a mass of archival records. For example, the turbulent 1960s, an era of unmatched protest on campus, an era rich with photos of violent clashes between police and protesters, has no archival records in the UW Archives related to the UWPD. One UWPD-produced annual report exists from 1968. It is our only internal glimpse into UWPD during this period. In addition, for the 1970s or the 1980s at UW-Madison, which were still decades of protest at UW-Madison (though slightly less recognized than their 1960s counterpart), we have sparse newspaper coverage at best. We have no internal letters or memos, no student voice, and no administrative perspective.
These gaps are natural for archives. Historians talk about the silences in archives frequently. But these gaps, particularly as they relate to histories threaded with racism and violence, feed our historical understanding of the past. They obscure the past, making it hard to bring into conversation with our present. In this case, they contribute to a woeful misunderstanding of the police—both in our cities and on our campuses—and make it hard for us to truly talk about the history of policing in our community. These gaps also allow historically inaccurate talking points to spread and gain traction, often derailing and undermining the activists and organizers who seek to dismantle and abolish the structures of policing.
With the recent activity of the Black Lives Matter movement on campus and across the nation, many people seem to think that protestors began rallying against the police as a part of the movement that only took shape recently. For anyone who runs in abolitionist organizing circles or who has read revolutionary Black thinkers, this idea is laughable. But for those unfamiliar with abolitionist organizing, it is easy to believe that this type of activism is brand-new. In fact, what our historical research into UWPD shows is that from the inception of a campus police force, students and community members had concerns. These concerns went unaddressed by the department and the university administration. Distrust festered until the UWPD’s initial incarnation was fully dismantled and reorganized in 1952, less than 15 years after its founding.
Another common misconception is that the call for abolition of campus police departments in particular is only a recent product of the BLM movement. Again, for anyone familiar with abolitionist organizing, or higher education history, this will seem preposterous. But again, for those who lack access to the broader context of abolitionist work, it is easy to believe that the call for the removal of police from campus is only just now rising out of the BLM movement.
The role of police in schools is a relatively new concept and has, in fact, always been contested. The rise of police in K-12 schools coincided with racial integration during the Civil Rights Movement and was used as a tool to punish Black and Latino youth. Similarly, the rise of police on campuses across the country coincided with growing movements like anti-war and Black Power in the 1960s. Both relatively recent historical moments and in both cases, students, parents, and community members raised concerns from the beginning. What our historical research into UWPD shows is that students have been calling to remove the police from campus since the 1940s, when the distrust first began. Even professors and scholars were wary of the role of police in schools. Professor Howard Gill, a sociologist of criminology, who was tasked with providing a report for the university administration on the role of police in schools, said: “It is a concept well established in society in general that interference or even participation of the police in school, the church, or the home is repugnant to American standards and to be avoided as far as possible.”
Students have continually reasserted this position. For example, in the 1960s when police violently clashed with peaceful protestors, “cops off campus” signs were common; in the 1970s, students running for position in the Wisconsin Student Association used “cops off campus” as a campaign position; in the 1980s when the TAA strike resulted in numerous injuries due to UWPD’s violent arrests, students wrote numerous op-eds, once of which stated “These thugs have no place on our campus!”; in the 1990s when the Associated Student of Madison (ASM) began organizing to remove the police from campus after charges of police brutality and the allegations that UWPD was monitoring politically active students groups; in 2016 when King Shabazz, also known as Denzel McDonald, was arrested during an Afro-Am course for allegedly spraying anti-racist graffiti around campus; and all the way up to today as ASM, the BIPOC Coalition, TAA, UFAS, and other campus groups organize to abolish the police on campus and in the Madison community.
As the uprising unfolded this summer, many were quick to share the broad historical record on policing—the institution’s connection to slave-catching, union-busting, political corruption, segregation, the infringement upon free speech and protest. It is hard to understate how important it is to share this information and to readjust broad community thinking about the history of policing. However, what was often missing from that historical conversation was information on city- and department-specific histories.
Some cities do have this information readily accessible. For example, Minneapolis has the MPD150 project, which made accessible a detailed report on the history of the Minneapolis Police Department. Cleveland has the People’s Archive of Police Violence which collects, preserves, and shares the stories, memories, and accounts of police violence as experienced or observed by Cleveland citizens. But what about the rest of our communities? The next time a police officer takes another innocent life and we begin this cycle of grief, anger, protest, and organizing anew, what histories can we turn to? What historical information is easily accessible to us? For many of us, including those of us in Madison, the answer is less clear and less reassuring. It currently does not exist, or at least, does not exist in full.
This is where the historical record and our historical misremembering begins to actively harm our communities. These gaps are more than just an unfortunate situation of bad record-keeping. These gaps greatly impact our understanding of the history of policing in our communities. They make it nearly impossible for us to have an honest conversation about these issues. They cloud and distort the histories of racism, violence, fear, and distrust between communities and police. They undermine the communities and organizers most affected by policing who work for abolitionist futures.
I want to believe our research on the UWPD is a step. It’s something where little to nothing existed before. But I know it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s riddled with gaping holes, with questions that may never be answered, and with narratives that many feel they can explain away or ignore or neglect until the next news cycle begins. It’s solitary. It hasn’t yet joined a broader history of policing on campuses in the United States because, in the words of a leading police scholar, “there just really isn’t much out there.” And it’s just a piece of scholarship. It alone cannot dismantle policing or build the abolitionist future that myself and many of my researchers hope to see. But in the words of the legendary abolitionist Mariame Kaba, “Hope is a discipline.” I have to believe it’s useful. I have to hope it is something.