Last year, as a record-breaking number of people took to the streets to protest police brutality, questions arose about the role that the USC Department of Public Safety plays at the University and in the surrounding community. Black students spoke up about unfair treatment from DPS, and student groups and activists issued lists of demands to fight racism on campus, including divesting from DPS and severing ties from the Los Angeles Police Department. USC faculty wrote a letter to President Carol Folt and DPS Chief John Thomas requesting, among other things, divestment from DPS.
Now, months later, USC’s DPS Community Advisory Board, which was started in response to the protests over the summer, is launching “Co-Design Public Safety Sessions” — a series of 10 sessions that aims to bring students, faculty, staff and neighbors together to discuss experiences with DPS, specific issues and recommendations for the future. The advisory board will put together the information that they find and report recommendations directly to President Folt. The sessions began on Feb. 8 and will last through Feb. 20.
Chief Thomas said that about four years ago, he participated in a similar committee to examine DPS practices and public safety. After a few meetings, however, the group fizzled out. This time, after the killing of George Floyd, he feels the end result will be better, and said he is committed to changing DPS.
Professors Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro and Erroll Southers, co-chairs of the advisory board, both said they want these meetings to go beyond typical listening sessions where solutions are imposed from the top-down, or experiences are listened to but not acted upon.
Alfaro, dean’s professor of gender studies, said she wants the policy recommendations to come from listening to, working with and talking to the community.
“Having people who have experienced the issue be at the center of the solution is our best chance at making things work,” she said.
Southers, the other co-chair of the advisory board and professor of the practice in national and homeland security, said the goal of the board is to end the sessions with specific policy recommendations for improving public safety at USC. What the policy change could be, though, is unclear — and could vary widely, he said.
Southers said their recommendations could include increasing DPS funding to include social workers, increasing the amount of officers, replacing armed officers with social workers or completely divesting from the department.
“Nothing is off the table at this point,” Southers said. “We haven’t been given any kind of mission to discuss whether we abolish the department, or have twice as many officers. We’re really going to respond to what we’re hearing from people and what we all think is best to do.”
So far, the sessions have discussed the role of DPS — specifically what kinds of incidents DPS responds to, Alfaro said. In the group’s research, they found that DPS is the only 24/7 and 365-days-a-year organization on both the University Park and the Health Sciences Campuses, meaning that, according to Alfaro, they respond to anything from violent crime to disputes over parking spaces.
“When we think about the broad scope of things DPS is asked to do, is that really the right thing for DPS to be doing? To be resolving a parking situation? Or should DPS be called for very serious situations where only DPS should really be involved?” Alfaro said. “And so, I think that’s really one of the things we found out: that [DPS is] doing a lot for a lot of other organizations, and maybe the University should think about making sure that those organizations and those other academic units have the support that they need to do their work.”
Alfaro is encouraged that the board will have influence and follow through with its goals in large part because of the diverse range of members and commitment by the University.
“We have on the table, in terms of the people who are on the [board], everyone from somebody who is involved in the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter to former federal prosecutors to former law enforcement,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro also said that these committees often fail when they only include the voices of people already committed to a specific method of change. On this board, she said, “we truly have everybody at the table,” and they are committed to listen to come up with solutions.
Chief Thomas said he took himself off of the advisory board to the co-design public safety sessions because he didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences.
“I’m not participating because in my view, I felt like I really want people to speak freely and openly, and if I’m there, people may be hesitant about criticizing the department, or even me, for that matter,” Thomas said.
Thomas compared himself to a kid at a candy store, excited to hear the feedback from the sessions whether it is positive or negative. As for his role, he is ready to act on any recommendations he is given.
“Whatever they recommend, implement. Whatever comes out of those, I’m not going to be there to criticize,” he said.
He does, however, hope to be able to provide some context. For example, if people say that the LAPD should not respond to incidents on campus, he would push back because he isn’t sure that is possible.
“[LAPD is] the municipal agency for all of L.A.,” he said. “I would weigh in on something like that because people pay their taxes in this area for police services.”
Southers addressed the Board’s transparency as a way to make sure that they are held accountable, citing their website, social media use, Universitywide emails and efforts to spread the word.
“Nothing’s worse than coming to a session like that, sharing your experience and feeling like it was a waste of time, or nothing’s going to happen,” Southers said. “We want [attendees] to feel better. We also want them to feel that something’s going to happen. Because by the way, by the end of next semester, we will have our first set of recommendations to President Folt.”
A previous version of this article stated that USC Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas started a committee to examine DPS practices and public safety four years ago. Chief Thomas did not start that committee, however he did participate in it. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.