The place for uniforms is not the university

in Gadfly by

You’re running late on your drive to work when you spot a police car. Do you check your speed? Stop at the yellow light that you might otherwise blow through? Ignore the temptations of your cell phone?

Of course, high-visibility policing is not the only way to improve road safety. In many ways it’s a bandaid on poor planning. Still, to the extent that it deters dangerous driving practices, we can probably agree to its benefits.

But would we want to trigger the same reaction in university classrooms? For the several dozen Memorial University Senators who voted last November to amend the Calendar article on Firearms on Campus, the answer is apparently yes.

At the time, the regulations forbade “firearms (including air rifles, air-guns and sling shots)” from being “brought into, or used in, any part of the University except the rifle range.” Under the new rules, “Police officers enrolled in a course who may need to attend classes while on active duty in uniform” are allowed to wear their loaded guns in class, provided they have secured written permission from the Manager of Campus Enforcement and Patrol at the start of the term.

It took several months for most students and faculty to learn that this change had even been mooted. For many, the first inkling came in late February, when Graduate Student Union President Joey Donnelly raised it in the aftermath of a police operation in which a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Officer shot at an alleged car thief in the parking lot of the works. For Donnelly, as he put it in a letter to The Independent, the Senate’s amendment “normalized the excessive use of police force” of just the kind exhibited during this sting operation.

Bad call

Once people twigged onto the vote, it was quickly made clear that Senate had badly misjudged people’s views on this issue. In March, Sociology professor Stephen Crocker organized an online petition calling for an absolute prohibition on weapons in the classroom. Within days, the petition had over 700 signatures.

Probably in consequence, Senate is now reconsidering its original decision and belatedly seeking feedback from faculty. (Anyone who is puzzled by exactly how such a change got through in the first place might read this report by Bert Riggs, Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Undergraduate Studies, who led the debate on the issue. It’s much more informative than the official minutes.)

The trouble with guns

If the commentary on Crocker’s petition site and social media are anything to go by, we can boil the dominant response down to Donnelly’s comment: “Guns don’t belong in schools.”

Of course I agree. But then, I never thought the police here should be routinely armed, a practice introduced in the RNC only in 1998.

The SIG Sauer P226 handgun, used by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. RNC officers were first permitted to carry sidearms in 1998. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The SIG Sauer P226 handgun, used by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. RNC officers were first permitted to carry sidearms in 1998. Wikimedia Commons photo.

As John Buttle explains, an unarmed force can only work by achieving consent: “this style of policing eschews firearms as a symbolic gesture that the police trust the public with their safety, which in turn facilitates public trust of the police.” In contrast, an armed force is likelier to operate at a distance from the people it is policing because it can work by coercion — a situation captured well in Jon Parsons’ recent column on media images of an RNC that is “not part of the community but instead operate[s] upon that community”

For Buttle, arming the police only makes life more dangerous — and not just because it encourages criminals to ratchet up their own arsenals. As he puts it, when they have guns the police tend to forget that “the best protection that officers have is (1) their ability to communicate and (2) their membership of a humane law enforcement organization with a good reputation.”

Likewise, Parsons, drawing on David Graeber, notes that many citizens spend a vast amount of time consuming pop culture images and narratives centred on cops. Policing grounded in violence carries no reciprocal obligation on the part of the police themselves.

Ultimately, my own worries about on-duty officers in the classroom are driven much more by this imbalance of empathy and imagination than by any fear of an officer actually drawing his or her gun. And in terms of the imbalance, it is the thinking of the students who are not in the police that concerns me most.

The trouble with uniforms

The rationale for Senate’s amendment of the regulation on firearms was to allow RNC officers to attend class while on duty. Being on duty requires them to wear uniforms and being in uniform requires them to carry loaded guns.

Given the dominant image of the police as paramilitary law enforcers—an image that Parsons notes is being fostered by the RNC itself—what effect might so visible a police presence have on the quality of classroom discussions? This question is of particular concern to those of us who teach critical—in my case, sometimes anarchist—perspectives on dominant institutions, including the police and military.

Let me be clear that this is a separate matter from whether individual police officers themselves are open to such discussions. No doubt, many are.

But why then would they want the right to wear their uniforms and guns to class in the first place? Clause 29.07 of their collective agreement provides for time off to attend university classes, so it clearly is a choice.

The stock answer is “convenience.” Yet, most MUN students who work in fast food or retail jobs would rather be caught dead than come to school in their uniforms, even if they were attending class on a split shift.

The difference tells us everything we need to know.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.