San Jose State University student coalition wants cops off campus
San Jose State University Police Department. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

San Jose State University students are calling for the removal of university police officers from campus in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Several SJSU student organizations met over Zoom at the end of September to discuss the formation of a “Cops Off Campus” coalition for the purpose of “disarming, defunding and abolishing university police,” and is conducting a campus-wide survey to determine next steps. The survey results will be presented to SJSU Vice President for Administration and Finance Charlie Faas, who oversees the University Police Department, said David Almeida, first secretary of Students for a Democratic Society.

Faas is the only university administrator to reach out to the coalition.

“After our first meeting, Faas emailed one of our coalition members from Young Democratic Socialists of America, asking for a one-on-one discussion with them,” Almeida told San José Spotlight. “He did not email other coalition members. We immediately thought that was suspicious, so we responded, asking for a collective discussion instead, a couple of days after his initial email. To this day he has not responded to us.”

Faas could not be reached for comment.

San Jose State University Police Department. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

Cops on campus

Organizations calling for cops off campus include Students for a Democratic Society, Young Democratic Socialists of America, Anakbayan Silicon Valley, the university’s Jakara movement chapter—a leadership organization designed to give the Sikh population a voice on campus through civic engagement—and Students for Gregory Johnson and Justice for Gregory Johnson. These two groups formed to address the 2008 death of Gregory Johnson Jr., a Black Sigma Chi fraternity member found hanging in the basement of his fraternity house.

Although Johnson’s death was not a result of police brutality, his case and the issue of police violence both align with the Black Lives Matter mission.

SJSU operates its own University Police Department (UPD) consisting of an administration and an operations bureau. The department is staffed by 24 officers and more than 50 civilian personnel.

The UPD has a tainted history, most notably involving former officer Johnathon Silva. In 2016, Silva beat and tased Philip Chong, a member of the public visiting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Chong was hospitalized for 10 days with broken ribs and collapsed lungs.

A 2017 lawsuit also alleged that in 2015, Silva and another officer threw then-student Alan Chen to the concrete, breaking his teeth and causing him to lose consciousness. Silva was fired by the university in August 2017, reinstated after winning an appeal in May 2018, but resigned months later after the Los Gatos Monte-Sereno Police Department hired him. He worked under Los Gatos Monte-Sereno Police Chief Peter Decena, his former UPD boss.

Students speak up

Ariana van Scherrenburg, a master’s student at San Jose State who also earned her bachelor’s at the university, said her interactions with campus police have been incident-free. She thinks that might be due to her privilege as a “mixed white Asian woman.”

“I totally understand why people wouldn’t want police on campus, though. My view of police and police spending in San Jose is not positive,” she told San José Spotlight.

Shaelan Barber, another student who witnessed campus police dealing with an incident, appreciates their presence.

“There have been times in the library where someone is acting very erratically, yelling at students just sitting there, and police have come in to calmly escort them out. Without (the police) there, I think a lot of situations could escalate really quickly,” Barber said.

According to the University Police Department crime log, officers made 13 arrests in October—two of which were for violent crimes. Annually, the department makes between 800 and 900 arrests. The vast majority of arrests made between July 2020 and July 2021 involved theft, burglary and robbery.

The University Police Department could not be reached for comment.

SJSU is the latest in a string of local institutions looking to kick cops off campuses. The San Jose Unified School District in June decided to end a contract with police, though they will bring them back for special events.  The Alum Rock and the East Side Union High School districts voted last year to boot San Jose police officers from their schools.

“The idea that people will feel safe around police is one that leaves many students behind, and fails to recognize our own trauma with policing in the United States, especially on a campus as diverse as San Jose State,” said Lucila Ortiz, a SJSU alum and organizing director for Californians for Justice.

As an undocumented student at SJSU, Ortiz lived in fear of the police during her college years.

“We as a campus community create safety, not police,” Ortiz said. “It’s time to invest in systems that address the root of the issues, and don’t continue to create more harm on the very students we are meant to serve. This includes more funding for mental health support, more supportive services for students, and eliminating hunger and homelessness within the student population.”

Contact Kristen Pizzo at [email protected]

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