Yesterday, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stated that the three Virginia special agents involved in a violent incident with Black University of Virginia student Martese Johnson are back on duty. In a video that went viral, a bloody and battered Johnson screamed as ABC officers pinned him to the ground and arrested him on March 18, 2015. He was charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice. Although the charges against Johnson were dropped, in an independent investigation, the Virginia State Police (VSP) concluded that the ABC agents did not violate agency policy.
Sending these agents back to patrol the same streets they assaulted Johnson on is absurd. If for some strange reason the agents’ actions were validated by “policy,” then that policy needs to change.
This year alone, 24 unarmed Black men have been shot and killed by the police, and college and university campuses aren’t any safer. Just a month ago, Sam DuBose, another unarmed Black man, was shot dead after being pulled over for a missing front license plate by a University of Cincinnati police officer. Where is the oversight? How can campuses and universities allow this blatant disregard for Black life to continue?
Johnson will be a senior during the 2015-2016 school year. Instead of focusing on graduation, he is dealing with the trauma associated with seeing his attackers patrolling campus. Does his collegiate experience matter? Does his Black life matter?
Even with clear video footage, the VSP found that the agents involved did not violate agency policy. Anyone with an ounce of integrity can see that those agents overreacted, no matter what Johnson was accused of.
Policies, procedures, and protocols act as statements of intent for an organization or entity. They provide direction regarding what should and shouldn’t occur. The violence that Johnson endured should not have occurred. The individuals that inflicted that act of violence should not be allowed to go back to work. What’s to stop them from targeting another Martese Johnson? Certainly not policy. The policy being promoted right now suggests that ABC agents can misjudge and overreact to situations, inflict life-altering violence on an unarmed Black college student, and face zero consequence. During the investigation, the agents were not suspended but relegated to desk duty, where they still received their salaries.
Campus police and ABC agents are not supposed to function in the same way a local police department would. Because college and university campuses are generally safer than ordinary communities, these individuals are tasked with protecting students and making sure their education is the top priority. VSP did not consider Johnson’s education a top priority when they released their statement yesterday. If they did, they would have never sent those agents back to patrol campus.
Colleges and universities are at an important junction in history. At the intersection between higher education and criminal justice reform, they have the opportunity to set the tone. Dating back to integration and the Civil Rights Movement, Black youth have historically had a tumultuous relationship with police on college and university campuses. Right now, institutions have the opportunity to change the policies that encourage unsafe learning environments – especially for Black youth. They must demilitarize college and university campuses. They must set limits on how much force ABC agents are allowed to use.
And, if policies allow attacks such as the one on Johnson—then they must repeal those polices as soon as possible.
Sheila E. Isong is a policy manager for Generation Progress, the youth engagement arm of the Center for American Progress, where she focuses on criminal justice reform, gun violence prevention, and voting rights. She recently wrote the report “Campuses and Guns: A Multilateral Approach To Gun Violence Prevention.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty