By Fiona Hernandez and Hannah Joseph | April 14, 2021
UAlbany’s UPD announced the creation of a new Community Response Unit (CRU) on April 1 after students expressed their desire for more mental health professionals on campus, but the announcement was met with outrage among those who feel that the new CRU does not meet the needs of the community.
In particular, social justice groups on campus were disappointed that the CRU does not do enough to distinguish itself from a normal police unit in order to adequately alleviate students' fears of police.
The Albany Student Press reached out to the Albany Social Justice Action Committee, a student run organization that promotes racial equity and is outspoken on social justice issues that arise in the UAlbany community.
Members of SJAC met with UPD Chief of Police, Paul Burlingame in Sept. of 2020 to discuss their ideas for a Mobile Crisis Program.
The goal of this meeting was to “establish a mobile program at UAlbany to support community members 24/7 with crisis management, navigation, counseling & mediation in order to promote healing through harm reduction and trauma-informed care, rather than carceral and institutional methods.”
Later that month on Sept. 23, the Student Association passed a Senate resolution that aimed to “to support, amplify, and empower the voice of Black-identifying students considering the oppression they face in every space.”
This resolution, which passed 29-2-1 in the SA Senate, called on the University at Albany administration to take, “substantial and tangible steps towards creating a more equitable, inclusive, and representative campus through diversifying faculty and staff including UPD, change and propose policies to protect Black students, providing quality mental health support, and ensuring that BIPOC students are well-equipped.”
In response, the CRU was created by UPD.
“The Community Response Unit was created to better serve our UAlbany community through community outreach, specialized, individual focused response for calls involving mental health crisis and victim support for those likely to have experienced trauma,” said Jennifer Baldwin, Inspector for New York State University Police at Albany. “The primary focus of this unit is community engagement, education and relationship building with our UAlbany community.”
One aspect that Chief Burlingame admired about the CRU was their new uniforms. He stated, “The officers will still be equipped to respond to any emergency but will wear a polo-style shirt instead of a uniform and exterior vest. We hope that this change will make the officers appear more approachable during outreach and reduce trauma associated with uniformed officers during a response.”
However, just a few hours after being announced, the UPD Instagram page was filled with comments by students expressing their frustrations.
One student said, “Simon Cowell does not approve of this Walmart 1D.”
Another student said, “I can assure you seeing a group of armed cops pull up to a crisis would only escalate this situation.”
In Jan. of 2021, SJAC followed up with UPD in an email to Burlingame. Members of SJAC brought up concerns that student feedback was not considered when creating the CRU.
Burlingame responded, saying “this unit will enhance our services, but we already respond to these incidents in a highly effective manner and have a proven record of success that I am proud of.”
When asked by the ASP if they believed the new response unit would meet the needs of the community, one member of SJAC Felix Simpson expressed their doubts.
“Many student voices have spoken out against police intervention for mental health crises,” they said. “Students on the UAlbany Campus are not a monolith, however many marginalized students, BIPOC and queer/trans folks, feel that mental health crisis needs to be addressed by trained mental health professionals.”
They went on to add that, “the CRU doesn’t improve police and student relations on campus, if anything, creating a group of 5 white policemen in polos with guns on their hips to address crises on a diverse campus calling for alternatives to law enforcement, is the opposite of community responsiveness.”
However, UPD is also looking to expand the Community Response Unit and make it more diverse.
“Through recruitment efforts, we seek to diversify our department composition and ultimately the Community Response Unit as well,” Baldwin said. “Currently, the unit is comprised of four white males and one black male.”
Another major issue that Simpson brought up was the fact that the officers are armed. “While the polos are meant to soften their appearance a person with a gun walking up to you while you are in a mental health crisis will always be scary,” they said. “It doesn’t matter what the police are wearing.”
Agreeing with many who expressed their disappointment with the new CRU, Simpson says, “it's easy for our university administration to give us empty statements about social justice, but I have yet to see actual changes to the system that actively oppresses the marginalized students on campus,” they said. “The CRU should be abolished. It's time for UAlbany to truly be community responsive and implement true change to the way we respond to mental health crises on campus.”