COLLEGE PARK—University of Maryland students took a stand Monday as they marched across campus to oppose the university police department’s acquisition of military-grade weaponry.
According to the University Police Chief David Mitchell, the department acquired 16 shotguns, two M14 rifle and 50 M16 rifles through the 1033 Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) program through the U.S. Department of Defense, in addition to an armored vehicle and two high-mobility-multipurpose-wheeled vehicles.
The university police force is required to possess certain equipment from the LESO program, Mitchell said, because of a nuclear reactor on campus. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires the force be trained and equipped with the particular equipment they requested.
The university has humvees and an armored vehicle, Mitchell said, because if the university were to fall under attack, then police would need to be able to safely transport injured people. He said the university has been in possession of the armored vehicle since 2007.
“If we had what happened the other night at Florida State where a guy went in the library and started shooting the place up, if we had wounded students we had to evacuate and we were under fire by a gunman, we would use this vehicle to evacuate the wounded and it would give us light protection against gunfire,” Mitchell said. “We have never deployed it against any kind of protest nor under my command would we ever.”
The campus’ police department received equipment from the LESO program in Sept., according to Jamie Hurtado of the University of Maryland Social Justice Coalition, but the student body did not take action because of a lack of communication between the school’s administration and its student body.
Students marched across the campus chanting phrases such as, “No justice, no peace,” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” in reference to the protests garnering national media attention in Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“Students are angered by the possible non-indictment of Darren Wilson and in solidarity with Ferguson, want to make sure that the lives of students of color are secure at our university,” Hurtado said.
Students are demanding the university’s police to return the equipment they received through the LESO program, Hurtado said, and have officers wear body cameras to ensure the safety of students on campus.
Curtis Dickens, a student who participated in the protest, said the goal is to send a message to the campus police. Students not only oppose police militarization, he said, but they would like to see more change in the future.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Dickens said. “The people who came out were very supportive and very loud. What we want to do is just send our message to the administration and hopefully they will echo our concerns. We just want to make sure they’re keeping with it.”
Students have a right to voice their concerns, Mitchell said, and they should be concerned about the events taking place in Ferguson.
““Students were voicing their concerns,” Mitchell said. “I applaud them for exercising their constitutional guarantees. We’re here to protect those as well…We’ve had a number of protests, as you can imagine, here on campus since I’ve been here. We have never deployed a weapon against any of our protestors. In fact, we’ve never even made an arrest.”
Mitchell also said the police department is in the process of acquiring body cameras within the next month.
“We have no objection to anybody seeing what we see,” Mitchell said.
“If it doesn’t happen in four weeks, I will personally voice my concern,” Dickens said.
Gregory Minton, another student who participated in the protest, said he is really proud of the student body for standing up and making its voice heard.
“I think that it’s all connected. At times it segued into Ferguson and Mike Brown instead of the specific UMD police demilitarization,” Minton said. “But at the same time Mike Brown wouldn’t have happened to the extent that it did without the militarization of the Ferguson police. It’s all interconnected.”
The next step for the students, Minton said, to raise awareness about the LESO program since so many people are not aware of it.
“I think it is going to be multigenerational,” Minton said about the time it would take to raise awareness. “Unfortunately it is going to take some time to build the society of fairness and justice that we want, but I’m in it for the long haul.”