BY KATE TURNER ’21
Beginning in July 2020, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges will operate separate campus police departments. The change was announced to the Mount Holyoke community in an email statement by Shannon Gurek, Mount Holyoke Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer.
Gurek wrote that, “over the coming weeks, and during the next academic year, the College will begin to prepare for this change.”
Later, President of the College Sonya Stephens announced to the campus community in an email that as part of the restructuring, Mount Holyoke Campus Police will move under the Division of Student Life, a transition that will take full effect in January 2020.
“This decision came from a review of campus policing models elsewhere, and from ongoing conversations with members of the community, including members of the Campus Police department,” a statement from the Office of the President read.
The College has operated as part of a joint police department since 2009, at first with both Hampshire and Smith Colleges. Hampshire began to independently manage its campus safety in 2018.
“I think one of the key needs for Mount Holyoke is the ability to have a department that is solely focused on our community,” Gurek said. “In the combined model, we had a chief of police that was trying to manage two (and previously three) communities and was pulled in multiple directions.”
Having a police force — and particularly a police chief — focused solely on Mount Holyoke, “will allow that person to focus only on our issues at the time we are having them,” Gurek said.
Though the split is the result of ongoing conversations between the two colleges, Gurek explained that part of the reason for this transition was the timing: the contract for collaboration between the two colleges is coming to its end.
“There is the opportunity [now] to think of things differently,” Gurek explained.
In her letter to the campus community, Gurek looks forward to the “design and evolution of campus safety at the College.”
“[The move to Student Life] does seem to be reflective of a sense that police do serve this community, at the center of which are students,” Assistant Professor of Politics Ali Aslam said. “So to the degree that Student Life is the place where students interact with the administration in meaningful ways about their living situations — the way that they inhabit this campus — it seems like a positive step.”
However, students and professors alike have some doubts.
“I don’t really know what ‘evolution,’ as [Gurek] uses it, refers to,” Aslam said. “Is it, as I hear it, really just a different way of [talking about what] the next phase or step or life of Campus Police will be, or by ‘evolution’ are we talking about transformation from a punitive regime to one where there are community norms around justice ... where the community takes responsibility for addressing those things?”
“I think that it’s an opportunity for the administration and Campus Police to bridge a gap that has existed for a very long time,” Kai Chuckas ’20 said. “But it’s about whether or not they can communicate better and whether or not they are actually going to listen to students.
“Moving them to Student Life was obviously strategic,” Chuckas continued. “They’re trying to create a new identity as an active part of student life rather than policing student life. I don’t know how well that’s currently being perceived.”
Chuckas, a Senior Community Advisor (SCA) in Mead Hall, described a recent hall event he’d put on that had been attended by several members of the Campus Police department.
“They are trying,” he said, “but they don’t understand that they can’t just roll up. Most of the people around me, regardless of who they were, immediately just dispersed. They did not want to be anywhere near a police presence.
“In this day and age the police state is the enemy — and that’s not any different here,” Chuckas said. “Just because this is a small college doesn’t mean that the reality is any different. Campus Police can’t just say they’re sorry and have that reality dissolve; you can’t just erase history. I think students are more in tune to that reality than the administration [is].”
At this point, members of the College are unsure if the restructuring will create change for Campus Police as a whole.
“I think we’re too early in the process to know,” Gurek said. “We’re looking for feedback on best structures and community involvement strategies that community members feel will be beneficial.”
“Having the chief of police position vacant is always a time to have those conversations,” she added.
The vacancy of the police chief’s position, though, only points to the department’s troubled history.
In February 2019, Daniel Hect was appointed as the police chief of Mount Holyoke and Smith’s joint police department. Hect had previously served as a Chief of Campus Police at Xavier University and, before that, Denison University.
However, weeks after his hire, students at both Smith and Mount Holyoke raised concerns about his suitability for the job, primarily regarding his social media presence. Students were particularly concerned with Hect’s Twitter history; many of his liked Tweets exhibited support for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and President Trump’s proposed border wall.
Mount Holyoke responded with several community forums or “listening sessions” to address students’ concerns. Though Mount Holyoke students largely raised and engaged in a campus-wide conversation about Hect’s suitability for the position of police chief, it was students at Smith who were engaged in collective and direct action to protest his hire.
In April of this year, hundreds of Smith students protested against Hect’s appointment, including a sit-in at the College’s John M. Greene Hall, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
These protests followed previous Smith incidences of institutional racism, including an Aug. 2018 call to Campus Police about a black student sleeping in a common room.
Following the protests and extended conversations on both campuses, Hect was placed on paid administrative leave in early April.
In a letter to the College community on April 11, President Sonya Stephens cited concerns expressed by “members of our community ... about the ability of Chief Daniel Hect to develop the level of trust required to engage in community policing.”
In May, Hect left the position entirely. In their official statements, both schools asserted that he had left by “mutual and amicable agreement.” A month later, Mount Holyoke announced the separation of the two departments.
Hect is currently succeeded by Interim Chief of Police Raymond LaBarre. LaBarre held the position before Hect’s hire and has been a member of Mount Holyoke’s Campus Police force since 1985. According to Gurek, the College is not searching for a replacement police chief at this time.
“It seems to me like part of what we could learn from this is that, rather than being in a responsive posture, students who have legitimate claims for changing the administration ... would need to build deeper organizing ties among themselves so that then they could generate power in numbers,” Aslam said. “It would be a very different thing if administrators were invited to listen at events organized by students.”
Chuckas agrees. What could be helpful, he says, is a conversation with Campus Police and Student Life “saying, ‘This is the total perspective on you, and you need to take that into account and reevaluate.’ Does that mean you change the uniform so that it looks more pedestrian and less threatening than the typical uniform, does that mean [Campus Police] puts on more programming around campus but without the hypervisibility of their police-ness?” Chuckas doesn’t know.
“I think they try to do that,” he said. “But when they show up, they are still in full uniform, they roll up in their squad cars and that immediately creates a mental divide that separates them from us.”
“I assume that in order to keep federal funding, [Mount Holyoke] has to have police,” Lucy James-Olson ’22 said. “But the function of campus cops should be for lockouts and just about nothing else.”
Chuckas wants to take things even a step further. “There is nothing a CA [Community Advisor] doesn’t do that Campus Police does,” he said. “Within buildings, the only thing [Campus Police] maintain is fire alarms. They’re not really necessary in the everyday lives of students unless there is an emergency, but in that case you call 911 and the community police come.”
“Many different ways of reconceiving how this campus operates are possible,” Aslam said. “They take collective will and action. And that’s always the challenge.”
“If we’re going to be honest, I think Mount Holyoke activism is mostly reactionary,” Chuckas said. “We show up when we are angry and there is no follow-through after that. Which is why the administration gets away with not being held accountable for what they need to be. Everyone shows up for the first meeting; no one shows up for the fifth ... all the administration has to do is sit and wait for the next week or next month when our anger has died down.”
After a year of students’ intense frustration with the College — from unburied assault allegations from the 1980s to the situation with Chief Hect, to a widely-publicized instance of sexual assault by a College staff member on a Mount Holyoke student — and student activism that was widely reactionary as the events of the semester fell into place, students began to search for methods of activism that were more proactive by the end of last year.
“From the events of the last year, students can take away a sense of confidence in our collective bargaining power,” James-Olson said. “In a competitive college environment, I think students internalize an attitude of intense individualism, which is a detriment to successful activism.”
Aslam, whose work examines how citizens negotiate concepts of democracy, recognition and freedom through political struggle, explained, “A lot of [working collectively] has to do with actually having better kinds of relationships ... which would yield a better understanding of what people have opinions about.”
Most people don’t have much experience with this kind of collective thinking, according to Aslam, so they begin to lose faith in the possibility.
“They fall back into a kind of fatalism,” he said. “But the truth of it is ... that signals to me that they’ve just learned to live with it.
“It’s a process of moving from one to another,” he said. “From ‘I don’t like this and I’ve learned to live with it,’ to ‘I don’t like this and I can no longer live with it.’ I think moving from the first to the second really depends on the discovery that you’re not alone.”
“It’s easy to get discouraged, especially when you feel like you are not listened to or not being heard,” Chuckas said. “It makes you think as a student, as an activist or as a leader that you are somehow ... not where you should be when in fact you are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of people.”