The police response in the Jamia Millia Islamia campus in Delhi has received widespread criticism. This criticism is largely based on the premise that the Delhi Police were wrong to respond with a heavy-hand on campus. But another premise that has not been addressed yet is whether a police force can handle academic protests appropriately. It is important to address this in light of the solidarity protests that are springing up in response to the recent violence at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Psychology and sociology are surprisingly universal. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States went through a thoroughly disruptive time where campuses were dominated by anti-war protests. I had the opportunity to learn about this during my research on Stanford University’s campus police. It is instructive to look at how policing evolved at SU during this time.

The Spring of 1970 was infamously referred to as “Cambodia Spring” after President Nixon ordered US troops into Cambodia in April. The then president of Stanford University, Richard Lyman, recalled that this was the most disruptive period of the university’s history. He noted, “The police were called to campus, I think, 13 times in two months and a lot of people were hurt. One person was even shot in the leg. It was just a very, very rough April and May, and a general strike closed the university pretty well down, and there wasn’t much we could do about it. I remember the then police chief [Tom Bell] putting up a notice saying, ‘If you can’t get to your office, try to identify the people who are preventing you from doing so and turn their names in, but we can’t do anything to help you’.”

Stanford Police chief, Bell, then left his job in disgust, and the campus was without a chief for four months, during which it struggled to deal with the situation. University officials quickly learnt that requests to the police only brought a heavy-handed response. Instead of a few officers, the police would send tactical squads in busloads in riot gear. This only provoked students further and escalated the situation. The university came to the conclusion that it needed its own police force and found a legal mechanism to do this.

They also found a chief in Marvin Herrington, who can be called the father of modern campus policing. Under his leadership, the department made clear working agreements with the university president, based on existing property rights. If students took over a building, it was treated as a property rights matter. The president of the university would be asked what should be done. Was this an act of trespass that warranted the activation of the police, or would they want to give students the space and try other methods to de-escalate? Only if the president of the university requested police intervention would they come in and make arrests. This gave a lot of room for creative thinking and non-violent approaches.

Herrington also created a manifesto of values that required officers to treat every client with dignity. By client, Herrington meant everyone the officers encountered in their work, including the people they arrested. This was as revolutionary as it got, and met with internal resistance. Herrington persisted and only hired officers who agreed to these norms.

The department further organised around two values: Public safety and education. The goal was to enforce the law on behalf of keeping people safe and also educate young adults to become better citizens. This led to several policing innovations. The police let it be known that if students got dangerously drunk and were reported by their friends, they would not be arrested and would instead be taken to the hospital. After recovering, students would meet with the director of alcohol education where they were reassured that their life is important. When students broke bicycle traffic laws, the police gave a citation. However, the “education” value led to another policing innovation. The police offered a bike diversion programme where the citation would be waived if the student attended a bicycle safety education class. The class was run by officers in partnership with the university, where students learnt how easy it was to get head injuries with unsafe bicycling. Students coming in with resentment left with gratitude. These norms still hold.

What does the response to a protest look like in such a policing context? After a violent response from the police on the UC Berkeley campus in response to the “Occupy movement” in 2011, Stanford students ended up inviting their Berkeley counterparts for a solidarity march on the Stanford campus. The Stanford police and the campus authorities had a very different response to this based on decades of values-based policing. They charted a route for the protesters that would allow them to march safely. During the solidarity march, which I witnessed, the police were present with water bottles. It was a hot day and they were concerned protesters might collapse out of dehydration. The university even gave a stadium for the protesters to gather and share their stories. The police kept a respectful distance to leave the protesters alone, while being near enough in case assistance was needed. The march ended with some of the protesters giving hugs to the police chief.

Published in print edition of The Hindustan Times, Jan 18, 2020