CRRES recently chatted with Dr. Vanessa Miller, Assistant Professor of Education Law in the School of Education and a new Faculty Affiliate, to discuss her forthcoming publication “A National Survey and Critical Analysis of University Police Statutes,” on campus police and racial discrimination, what inspired her to research the topic, and her approach to sharing research with public news outlets.
An Interview with Dr. Vanessa Miller
Your research focuses on campus police and accountability. What inspired you to do research in these areas?
Dr. Miller: I was working at an education law firm in California in 2020 and 2021, during the onset of COVID-19 and its impact on education, and one of the biggest questions educational leaders across the nation were concerned about was enforcing policies. How do schools and universities enforce students and employees to wear masks, submit to testing protocols, or meet distancing requirements? An unfortunate and all too common approach was to enforce these policies through police. As a researcher and a Latina from a racially diverse community, I knew the racial impacts of police in schools would only exacerbate many of the issues uncovered during COVID. So, from there I took an interest in the legal underpinnings of school and campus police.
On a personal level, I vividly remember going to a football game at my undergrad institution at the University of Florida, and I saw campus police with large, semi-automatic rifles outside the stadium. I thought you don’t see that every day. There I was, just walking to a football game and immediately met with the presence of violence.
You have a forthcoming publication in the Buffalo Law Review, “A National Survey and Critical Analysis of University Police Statutes,” could you share more about your research on university police statutes? For those who don’t study law, what is ‘statutory authority of campus police officers?’
Dr. Miller: During my postdoc at the University of Florida Law School, I worked under Katheryn Russell-Brown, a leading race and crime scholar, at the Race and Crime Center for Justice. Because I was interested in race and crime in schools, the first thing I turned my attention to were school and university police. I found that campus police were largely missing from legal scholarship. So, I researched the history and contemporary context of campus police and together we ended up writing a comprehensive paper on the history, law, and racial dynamics of campus polices. The paper was ultimately published in the Washington & Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice. During that project, one of the questions I kept asking myself— because we researched cases of university police who inflicted violence upon campus and community members – was “Where did they [campus police] get their authority from? Not just social or political authority, but legally speaking, where do campus police receive their authority? Furthermore, why are campus police on campus? What role do they serve? So, I did some research and found two studies, one from 1972, authored by Seymour Gelber, and the second from 1996, authored by Max Bromley. The two studies focus on the statutory authority of campus police. What that means is: What does each state law say about campus police? Or, how does each state delineate the powers of police on campus? This question is important because every state’s law is different in how campus police can exercise their authority. For example, in Florida, the laws regulating campus police look very different from Indiana or California. So, I thought, this research hasn’t been updated since 1996. It’s been 30-something years. We’ve had technological revolutions. We’ve had an increase of women and students of color. We’ve had political disruptions. We’ve witnessed major social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter and Me Too, climate justice, and March for Our Lives. What does the state of “university police statutes” look like now? I began the research by looking up and analyzing the laws governing campus police in every state, and D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam. What do state laws say about campus police, and how have they transformed over the last 30 years?
What was the most significant transformation from these two previous studies to now?
Dr. Miller: Two major things. First, from the first study in 1972, the research shows the laws are much more expansive. Many states in the 1970s either didn’t have campus police statutes or they had statutes that were relevant to campus security or public safety, but not campus police. During that time, campus police also derived their authority from attorney general’s opinions, which is when a university would write to the attorney general of the state and ask: “Are we allowed to do this? Can we employ police officers?” And the attorney general would say yes or no. Then, slowly, you start to see the development of their opinions turn into codified law. The first study shows us that nearly half of the states did not have laws on the books about campus police. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, after the civil rights movement, protests, and integration, we see an increase in campus police statutes.
Then, second, from the second study in 1996, the research shows that not only is there an increase in campus police statutes, but an increase in authority. Police are able to exercise their authority off campus and even statewide. And what I find the most interesting, from a critical point of view, many of the state laws explicitly say universities may employ one or more campus police officers. And yet we see million-dollar campus police departments that are bigger than many local municipal police departments. So, although the state laws say, may, which one can read as you don’t even have to employ any officers, and if you do, one or two as you see fit. What is allowed to what is actually happening is substantially different.
Your forthcoming publication uses traditional legal research methods, could you talk about what that is and your data collection process?
Dr. Miller: Traditional legal research is a research method used by legal professionals, including scholars, policymakers, lawyers, judges. It involves analysis and synthesis of legal documents like laws and cases. I consider myself a qualitative legal researcher, so I rely on traditional legal research methods to locate the legal documents I need and then I rely on qualitative research methods like document analysis or critical language discourse analysis to evaluate the data. For me, data includes the text of laws, like state statutes, and the text of cases. In collecting data for this forthcoming project, I researched state laws relating to campus police. The difficult part is there are no dedicated sections in state education laws for campus police, at least not uniformly. So, because there is no uniform organization of laws for each state, I had to comb through thousands of laws. Some states, like California, Texas, and Florida, were really great. Texas state law is organized such that their laws on education – called “education codes” – are divided into K-12 and higher education. In higher education, there is a chapter about provisions that apply generally to higher education, with a section specifically dedicated to campus police, or “campus peace officers.” That was easy. Other states, like Connecticut, were much more difficult. Statutes relating to campus police were buried underneath other sections or headers, like general statutes or special police forces, and not always under education laws. After I located and combed through hundreds of laws relating to campus police, the qualitative researcher took over and I started coding them. What reoccurring patterns or themes do I notice in the text of the laws? What are some similarities or dissimilarities? That part was really fun.
You were recently interviewed for the Daily Texan about campus police and racial disparities in stop rates. What role do you see yourself in when discussing your research with public outlets?
Dr. Miller: I was really happy when they reached out because the authority of campus police is incredibly important, but it’s even more important in the context of the disproportionate violence against racially marginalized communities and campus community members. For example, when you look at the University of Chicago, a private university, the university’s police force polices the surrounding community in Chicago, in many neighborhoods that are predominantly Black, immigrant, or Latino. When I study the authority of campus police, it raises a lot of concerns because of the documented violence being inflicted on many marginalized communities. It’s one thing when I’m asked about campus police, but another thing when you add the layered context of racial discrimination because they are inseparable. You can’t talk about one without the other. You can’t talk about campus police without violence against racially marginalized communities.
I’m very mindful, especially when talking to public outlets to not use legal jargon. It’s important that I talk about or think about research and law as a translating experience. It’s almost like being bilingual. When you translate, you know how one word in Spanish doesn’t always translate in English? I’m constantly trying to think about how I can best reflect the legal nuances to a public audience. When I was interviewed, I wanted to get across that campus police, their history and authority, and racial discrimination are inseparable.” I was really happy to talk about my work and why it matters that campus police authority has been expanded over the last few years, particularly in the context of rising social justice movements. The interview was a really great first step to try and make my research a little bit more accessible to the public.
Meet the Researcher
Vanessa Miller is an Assistant Professor of Education Law in the School of Education at Indiana University. She is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work focuses on race and the law, school and university police, school crime and safety, prison education, and the role of the courts in education law and policy. Dr. Miller holds Affiliate Status at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society and the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.