Andrew Guarino / Gavel Media

Why are Boston College Police so Prevalent on Campus?

It was the first thing to greet me upon my arrival to Boston College’s campus, and the last thing I expected. They are a consistent entity all students come into contact with every day. They seem to be the number one resource on campus—indeed, the essential go-to for any problem, large or small. Examine your Eagle ID card and the first four phone numbers are associated with this entity—one which this institution deems more important than University Counseling Services and the Sexual Assault Network (phone numbers six and seven, respectively). 

I, of course, am referring to the Boston College Police Department, also known as BCPD. 

It is problematic that the school itself seems to think it prudent for the police to be summoned for any issues that may arise. According to the BCPD website, it is part of their “philosophy,” which is centered around community-oriented policing. This happy-go-lucky, familial propaganda should be dismissed and seen for the farce that it is, given the fact that policing as a profession is inherently adversarial, not to mention historically oppressive towards communities of color and marginalized groups such as those who struggle with mental health. 

Additionally, it has been proven that community-orientated policing is not the solution to resolving issues of power imbalances and abuse which are so prevalent when it comes to police departments across the country. The bizarre ”Run with the Cops'' (a new annual event put on by the department where students and officers run at the reservoir) and the police serving freshmen ice cream during orientation will not identify or work to address the near-impunity officers have and the lack of accountability they often possess. 

Indeed, it deceives students into thinking police officers are a part of the community—meanwhile, transparency and release of incident reports are nowhere to be found. What do the police actually do? What are the most common issues they deal with? And why are they armed when they have no valid justification or precedent calling for such drastic policy? In the United Kingdom, the majority of police do not carry firearms. Indeed, it would coincide with the supposed goal of “community outreach and trust” if the (literal) loaded symbol of power, danger, and authority that is a gun was discarded. 

To better understand the dynamics of BCPD, I interviewed Stephen Pfohl, a sociology professor in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences who teaches the course Deviance and Social Control. 

“[The police] on one hand do the stuff that lots of other police do, you know—protection, if there's crime on campus, and of course having to report crime on campus,” said Pfohl, “but they also, because of the nature of campus, play the social worker role.”

BCPD, Pfohl further shares, prioritizes mental health as being one of their “major concerns”—stating they have training in handling crises that may arise. However, it is rather difficult to see how armed individuals coming into contact with someone in a state of panic can provide a calming, safe response for that person. Furthermore, there is no mention or information on the BCPD website in regards to the type of training or the extent to which it has proven to be effective.

University Health Services instructs students to call the BCPD if a life-threatening emergency arises—for example, a student who is having suicidal ideations or intends to harm themselves. Glaringly, there is no department affiliated with BC that operates specifically to provide 24-hour response and support for students struggling with mental health. 

“Most of [the police’s] work is done at night...when mental health professionals are gone,” said Pfohl. 

And if a student is in their dorm experiencing a severe mental health crisis after hours, say, late at night?

“I don’t think there's any...other than [Residential Life]," said Pfohl. "I don’t think there is any other force on campus to deal with [immediate mental health crisis] I would hope that they have good training to be able to make judgments.”

The question arises—what training are they receiving? Is it adequate, comprehensive, and are they the ones who should even be responding in the first place? Perhaps the university should focus on providing professionals who are trained to respond to such crises, as opposed to simply telling students to call the cops. There is a profession that deals specifically with mental health crises already in existence: social workers.

The previously mentioned promotion of BCPD can also be attributed to “recruiting [prospective students]” and assuring concerned parents that Chestnut Hill is a “safe area”—further catering towards a demographic that views the police as the ultimate insurance of protection. In pushing this angle, the university intrinsically dismisses students and families who have experienced the police as a controlling and threatening entity. They do not take into account the realities of students of color, students who have had a negative experience with law enforcement due to mental health, or students who have been dismissed by the police after reporting a sexual assault — a direct contradiction to their mission statement claiming they are “a service-oriented team.”

There seemingly is a claim that BCPD is an understanding and inherently beneficial resource for students.

“When they speak to my class they say ‘you’d much rather deal with us than deal with the Boston Police,’” said Pfohl, “I mean, they are presenting all of the positives.” The separation of one police force from another is an interesting one—is the BCPD truly free of inherent bias? The answer is a resounding no.

“There’s been different points in Boston College history where [interactions] have some kind of racialized base, and police made judgments,” said Pfohl.

There have been numerous instances of the Boston College police profiling students of color, with one incident in February 2021 stating that BCPD called female students on the MLE floor “childish” after they reported a hate crime. 

This issue has historically has been prominent at Boston College. Pfohl said that “15 years ago, we had a [new sociology] faculty member of color at Boston College...who had a huge confrontation...because he didn’t look, from the point of view of the campus police, as a faculty member. I was the [department] chair at the time and just looked out of the window and saw this happening, just saw police cars surrounding his car. ”

The man involved in this outrageous, discriminatory experience had pulled up to the building with the intent to bring books up to his office—parking informally to expedite the process. Because he refused to stop when challenged by the police, the police were ready to charge him with “a crime for assault” due to the fact that he moved his car forward towards them. 

“[They] treated him as some kind of outsider trying to invade the campus,” said Pfohl.

The provost ultimately interceded and de-escalated the situation, and an “apology” was extended by police towards the faculty member—however, there was no disciplinary action against the officers. 

Although BCPD is an integral part of life at Boston College, policing at institutions of higher education was not always a reality.

“Police really began on campus as employees of universities mostly in the 1960s. . .[among] campus protests. There were a lot of disruptions,” said Pfohl. “All of a sudden all private and public schools started to have [campus police]...[acting] as suppressors of protests, or certainly mediat[ors].”

Historically, police were not members of college communities, nor uplifters of student voices: they were an inherent authoritative and oppressive presence, and that has not changed.

Incoming first-year students are required to sign agreements as part of their initial onboarding orientation. As described in the Student Demonstration Policy, all protests and demonstrations must “be registered and approved in advance by the Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation” and Boston College has the right to prohibit any organization “intended or deemed likely to disrupt or interfere with University operations.”

“The policy on protests, I mean to register the demonstration for so many’s a very unusual thing. I don’t know how typical that is for other campuses, but it seems like a real constraint on speech on our campus. But that's been an issue for a while,” says Pfohl.

The process of students protesting “correctly” is laughably pathetic, considering what the administration demands is not protest. A large part of the police department's duty is to enforce the “rules and regulations” of Boston College, as stated on the website — the manifestation of that being that they are the first to arrive and suppress any forms of free speech that have not been granted “prior authorization” by the university, which is entirely up to their discretion. Boston College inhibits free speech, as a policy, instead of supporting it. 

Professor Pfohl said that about six to seven years ago there were protests “for protest itself,” largely organized by grad students across campus. Prompted by the events of Ferguson, there were concerns about police and protesting—with students demanding that Father Leahy speak out on the issue of racial justice. Leahy, it should also be noted, refused to make an official statement condemning on-campus racial violence in 2017 and more recently remained tight-lipped in regards to the discrimination of the LGBTQ community as a whole. 

In this particular case, said Pfohl, students convened on the meeting of the Board of Trustees in December, singing well-known Christmas carols, replacing the classic words with lyrics instead denouncing racial discrimination. They had not registered with the proper channels — with the knowledge that the university would not have approved in the first place. 

“Then they were totally policed,” said Pfohl, because of the justification that they “didn’t have an officially designated protest—it was a surprise action” (i.e. — what protest is).

The BCPD continued their flexing of social control (indeed, the opposite of community outreach) when students held an unregistered peaceful lie-in during the same period of time. Apart from the heavy police presence during the demonstration, students were required to attend disciplinary hearings where “the university was threatening to remove them from their graduate programs.” 

Thus, the police are a deterrent when it comes to exercising any form of free speech on campus, along with fear of retaliatory discipline from the university itself. 

Certainly, far from aiding in the “ethical formation” of the student body—present in the mission statement of the Department—the BCPD plays an extensive role in discouraging tangible forms of objection in regards to social injustice. 

With our interview coming to a close, I asked Professor Pfohl one last question: When the majority of issues they are handling are non-violent—why are the police armed with a deadly weapon?

The answer: justification for police being armed is simply unsubstantiated. 

“When do they face a situation where they feel threatened and where they feel they need to [draw a firearm]...I imagine it’s pretty uncommon.”

The police have numerous forms of defense and protection, starting with their badges themselves. They enjoy essential immunity in the eyes of the law. They are, from my observations so far, extremely physically fit, and “aren’t dependent on firearms to control situation[s]” and their training should make them more than capable of evading or dealing with an angry, belligerent student who has had too much to drink. 

The BCPD has nothing on their website explaining why their officers are armed. There is a lack of transparency, and a refusal to provide legitimate reasoning for carrying practices. Equally concerning, is the fact that many students do not seem to mind or recognize that the gun gives them the ability to “use violence legitimately.”

“I don’t know who the intention of that gun is," Pfohl said. "Is it geared toward people coming from outside the campus?”

Given the geographic location and demographic of Chestnut Hill, as well as the police patrolling campus frequently, the odds of an unwelcome person coming onto the school and presenting a deadly threat towards students or faculty is extremely unlikely. Are there precedents for such instances, and if so what are they? Professor Pfohl and I both can’t seem to find an answer.

The claim, as the Boston College Police Department states, that they are “enhancing the quality of life for the BC community” is a laughable and outrageous one—and I have found it jarring and inconceivable that so many do not see why. The police are under the weald of the administration—their armed presence, their adversarial role when it comes to student free speech, and their recorded instances of racial profiling are problems that they refuse to acknowledge. 

“Police don’t like to be social workers, because that's not what their image of themselves [is]," said Pfohl. "But that’s the language being used [at Boston College]—that they’re part of the community.”  

I wonder how long it will take for complacent students to realize this fallacy and comprehend that police are instead part of the problem. 

Questbridge Scholar
Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, 2025