Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer
For members of the Student Government Board like Kathryn Fleisher, a major concern is the safety of Pitt students not just from COVID-19 but also from police brutality. Fleisher said SGB worked to make sure no police interactions about COVID-19 protocols were unsafe.
“We strongly believe that having more police presence around students doesn’t actually make them any safer,” Fleisher said. “And we wanted to ensure that anyone who is potentially having an interaction with the police, that it was safe and productive.”
Instead of heavy enforcement of COVID-19 protocols by Pitt police, Pitt has taken on a student-led approach through SGB and University collaborative programs to implement strategies to ensure campus safety.
Pitt spokesperson Pat McMahon said Pitt police do ask students to wear face coverings but do not issue fines for non-compliance. He added that while crime in Pittsburgh has gone down due to pandemic conditions such as stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the police are still active on campus.
“The Pitt police department has remained proactive in the University community and surrounding neighborhoods, patrolling and communicating amid COVID restrictions with students, neighbors, business owners and visitors,” McMahon said.
Fleisher, a senior politics and philosophy and gender, sexuality and women’s studies double major, said making students, especially students of color, feel comfortable is a top priority, since interacting with police “may not be where they’re most safe.”
Fleisher said while enforcing public health safety is important, ensuring safe interactions with law enforcement was a major priority.
“We actually advocated really strongly over the summer and into the semester that the Pitt police should not be involved in the COVID response,” Fleisher said. “By that I mean that Pitt police should not be the ones responding to people breaking protocol.”
Eric Macadangdang, president of SGB, said instead of a police presence, SGB plays an active role in redirecting the “enforcement” responsibility from Pitt police to other outlets such as staff and peer communication. He said past instances of police brutality across the country have influenced how involved the Pitt police would be in the pandemic protocols.
“We wanted to make it abundantly clear that we shouldn’t use the police as an arm of enforcement in this matter,” Macadangdang, a senior urban studies and history and philosophy of science double major, said.
Macadangdang said SGB had the main role of creating a “peer-led approach” to ensuring compliance, including reminder messages about social distancing, Pitt’s investment in starting a program of off-campus safety ambassadors and even himself and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner walking around the neighborhood to assess how students are social distancing.
Besides working with Pitt police on how to handle COVID-19 restrictions, SGB is also teaming with the campus police to form a new student advisory committee to discuss other accountability and transparency-related items.
Macadangdang said the committee is still in its early stages, but will aim to be an intermediary between students and the campus police.
”The intent of it is to provide some sort of oversight and some sort of accountability from a student perspective to ensure that, frequently, the Pitt police are checking in with students to get our feedback, our thoughts about matters and our perspective on how they are doing on campus,” Macadangdang said.
McMahon said the Pitt police is working with SGB on this student-run committee, as part of a “commitment to improve police practices and enhance dialogue with students.”
While the Pitt police play a role in this new committee, Fleisher said the group is being created through the labor of students, particularly students of color, to establish a conversation with the police on student safety matters.
”We’re doing this work as students who are concerned about public safety on our campus and who want to make our campus more equitable and safe and inclusive for all students,” Fleisher said. “And that that might mean reassessing what policing looks like.”
Macadangdang said so far, the COVID-19 compliance protocols have been successful with not only educating students on public safety matters on campus but also offering resources such as alternative socializing options.
Even so, Macadangdang said he knows not everyone will be in compliance with the University’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“We understood that there are going to be students who may not follow our guidelines and rules,” Macadangdang said. “We have to think of proactive, safe ways to remind them of our policies.”