By Maryam Azzam
In February of 2022, Nicole Agyenim Boateng was walking back to her residence at the International Living and Learning Centre (ILC) when she thought she was being followed by a man.
“All I could think about is there’s nowhere else for me to run,” says the third-year child and youth care student. “For my own personal safety, I have to go to somebody else.”
She spotted a police car nearby and was faced with a decision: going to the police officer or potentially being harmed by the person who was clearly following her.
“As a Black woman, I did not know what this man was going to do. I’m a Black person approaching a cop car. I don’t know what [the officer’s] going to do,” says Boateng.
“That was what I was thinking in my head: Which one is worse?”
Following Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) recent increase of security and policing on campus, some Black and Indigenous community members say they are concerned.
“I’m a Black person approaching a cop car. I don’t know what [the officer’s] going to do”
In January, TMU announced that it made several “security enhancements” to Kerr Hall and around campus prior to the fall 2022 semester.
In addition to adding more security guards, the school also said it began a partnership with the Toronto Police Service (TPS) to have officers on campus.
TPS, which recently increased its 2023 budget by $48.3 million—now sitting at $1.1 billion as reported by CTV News—will “provide an additional layer of support for [TMU’s] security team,” according to the announcement.
TPS did not respond to The Eyeopener in time for comment.
While the increased security measures may prove beneficial for some, other TMU students and faculty have raised concerns that not everyone’s safety is being taken into consideration.
Boateng says additional police presence on campus makes her uncomfortable.
“Being able to arrest people on campus won’t make campus safer,” she says. “Especially for Black and Indigenous youth who have been historically marginalized by the police.”
Just last week, CTV News reported that University of Toronto student Hasani O’Gilvie was on his way to write a final paper on campus in August 2021, when he was allegedly followed and Tased several times by multiple TPS officers.
Police labelled the incident as a case of “mistaken identity,” according to CTV News. The O’Gilvie family says this was not a case of mistaken identity but a case of “walking while Black.” O’Gilvie and his family are now suing TPS for $2.4 million in damages.
TMU president Mohamed Lachemi told The Eye in an emailed statement that the school recognizes “that each individual’s lived experience informs their perspectives of security on campus, and while some people feel safer in the company of uniformed security, others feel unsafe.”
Lachemi said the school is looking to implement a “community safety model” that addresses these concerns by working with the Presidential Implementation Committee to Confront Anti-Black Racism to develop strategies to implement the report’s recommendations.
This means conducting equity, diversity and inclusion training programs for the Community Safety and Security department, including security guards, he said.
“Being able to arrest people on campus won’t make campus safer”
TMU has tried to partner with TPS in the past. In August 2019, the university tried to introduce a special constables program on campus, where TMU employees would have policing authority in “incidents involving assault, assault with a weapon, vandalism and theft, as well as the enforcement of smoking by-laws,” according to the Community Safety and Security department.
The program was approved in May 2020. However, two weeks later, it was cancelled following backlash from various student groups and amidst global protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
As previously reported by The Eye, the TMU’s Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), now known as Students for Harm Reduction, also launched a ‘No Cops on Campus’ campaign against the special constables program in May 2020, which included a petition that called for transparency about the complaints made against TMU security and “a transition strategy for alternatives to uniformed security on campus.”
CSSDP, along with other student groups, including the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) and Indigenous Students Rising (ISR) had also been organizing against police presence on TMU’s campus for years prior.
In Nov. 2016, the BLC and ISR called on the university to look into the anti-Indigenous racism and anti-Blackness within the institution, specifically at the School of Social Work. The open letter published by the BLC describes an incident in which a professor participated in a form of anti-Black racism in the classroom.
The following March, the BLC shared on its Facebook that it had met with TMU and the university had committed to conducting a full report titled the Anti-Black Racism Campus Climate Review (ABRCCR).
It looked to “better understand the realities Black students, faculty and staff face in order to create an environment where they can thrive,” the university said in a statement on TorontoMet Today.
According to its findings, Black students felt that security was an intimidating force for them. Students reported being followed on campus, asked for identification and “experiencing the condition of always assumed as not belonging,” the report said.
BLC co-founder and TMU alumnus Josh Lamers told The Eye in 2020 that they were unimpressed with the months-long delay and lackluster conclusions by the university. “This is not the report that [the] BLC demanded, this is not the report that we fought for, this is not the report that honours…our work,” they said.
“Policing always, always produces the criminal; it produces the other”
While conversations around removing cops from TMU’s campus have been happening for years, the recent incidents of sexual violence in Kerr Hall have created a renewed demand for safety.
According to an investigation published in the Toronto Star earlier this month, some students and faculty members expressed feeling unsafe on campus given the recent incidents in the building.
In Nov. 2022, Hannah Powell, a second-year student at TMU, started an online petition calling for increased security personnel presence. The petition has since garnered more than 13,000 signatures.
Sam Tecle is an assistant professor at TMU and expert on Black diaspora and cultural production.
He says instances of sexual violence require solutions that don’t involve putting the community further in harm’s way. “I’m not discounting this violence but we’re also going to be scared—Black people, racialized people—when you bring more security and police on campus,” he says.
“This petition shows that those who police normally protect—those who have private property, white women and white people, cisgender people, able-bodied people—those people are going to be kept most safe,” says Tecle.
He says the school’s increased security measures enforces an “us” versus “them” mentality.
“Policing always, always produces the criminal; it produces the ‘other,’ produces the dangerous, it produces the Black person, the homeless person, [the] queer person. That’s what policing does,” he says.
TMU assistant professor Megan Scribe says the university’s decision to increase security presence on campus ignores these different relationships the community might have with policing powers.
Scribe, whose work focuses on how racist and anti-Indigenous gender-based violence uphold white settler societies, clarifies that policing powers don’t just entail security, but also paramedics and other frontline responders, who can take a carceral approach in their roles.
She says TMU’s updated security measures can further perpetuate on-campus violence through exacerbating fear.
“It reinforces this antagonism [between] the university and the broader downtown community that includes unhoused folks, includes people who are abandoned by the city in various ways on the basis of race or gender or substance use,” says Scribe.
Tecle notes that police and security are reactionary and that the university should be focused on relationship-building within the community, having teach-ins and speaking about safety when there’s no pending crisis.
“It’s not about putting more police on campus,” says Boateng. “It’s more us, as a community, keeping each other safe … it’s about all of us together keeping ourselves safe.”
With files from Racy Rafique, Manuela Vega and Sarah Krichel