News feature

The MIT Police Department, explained

Chief DiFava expresses willingness to participate in discussions regarding campus policing

9453 asset 8
The MIT Police Department has an over 60-year long history, spanning its inception in 1957 to recent discussions of policy changes prompted by the BSA/BGSA petition.
Kevin Pho – The Tech

The MIT Police Department (MITPD) has moved to the center of campus conversations following nationwide protests about police brutality against Black communities. The second objective of the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA) Support Black Lives at MIT petition, which has over 4,500 signatures, calls for reforming policing at MIT. The petition was followed by President L. Rafael Reif’s July 1 announcement that BSU and BGSA leaders are in talks with Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo and MIT Police Chief John DiFava regarding policing reforms.

To begin to understand this moment, it’s important to understand who exactly the MIT Police are, what they do, and where we go from here. 

The Basics 

MITPD is led by DiFava and reports to MIT’s Executive Vice President and Treasurer. 

MITPD has a budget of “roughly” $8 million, funded by the general Institute budget, DiFava said in an interview with The Tech. In comparison, Stanford projected $24.5 million in expenses for its Department of Public Safety in the 2019-2020 school year. 

MITPD has 67 members, including 38 uniformed patrol officers, wrote Stacie Slotnick, director of communications for MIT Human Resources, in an email to The Tech. There are currently four open positions in MITPD. 

Officers carry pepper spray and are armed with the Smith and Wesson Military and Police semi-automatic handgun, according to the 2019 Annual Security Report and DiFava, respectively.

MITPD is warranted under Chapter 22C, Section 63 of Massachusetts General Laws, which grants MITPD the same arrest power as regular police officers on properties “owned, used, or occupied” by MIT. In addition, officers are sworn in as deputy sheriffs in Middlesex and Suffolk counties, according to the 2019 Report.

MITPD maintains jurisdiction over all properties owned, leased, or rented by the Institute. “Cambridge Police do not come on MIT properties unless we ask them to,” DiFava said. 

MITPD is divided into patrol operations, a training unit, and a special services division. Patrol operations cover emergency services, patrolling, and EMS dispatching, according to the 2019 Report. The training unit provides basic police academy instruction, specialized courses, in-house training, emergency procedure implementations, and training for environmental medical situations. 

The special services division includes an investigation unit and a crime prevention unit. The investigation unit provides “procedural assistance with the court system” and “resources for victims of sensitive crimes,” such as domestic violence and sexual assault. The crime prevention unit provides security surveys, periodic defense resources, and safety information, according to the 2019 Report.

Personnel

DiFava has led MITPD since Dec. 10, 2001. 

MITPD personnel include patrol officers, dispatchers, detectives, administrative assistants, and crime analysts, Slotnick wrote in an email to The Tech

Of the 54 MITPD members who reported their demographic information to MITPD, three patrol officers and one sergeant are African American, eight patrol officers and two dispatchers are Latino/Hispanic, 40 members are Caucasian, and 15 members are women, Slotnick wrote.

Officers are paid between $40,000 and the “high $50,000s,” DiFava said. All 38 uniformed officers are voting members of the MIT Campus Police Association (MITCPA), the officers’ union. 

The MITCPA “negotiates for terms and conditions of employment that are lawful under the National Labor Relations Act.” These terms and conditions include “economics, union and management rights, drug and alcohol testing, time off, education and training, first responder support, field training, work schedules, health and dental insurance and non-discrimination obligations,” according to a statement from Joseph West, president of the MITCPA, emailed to The Tech

The MITCPA announced a vote of “no confidence” in Chief DiFava June 29. In response, MIT stated that it stands by the leadership of DiFava. 

When there are open positions in the MITPD, Human Resources posts them on the HR website, on more than 10 job-posting sites automatically, and on more than “10 sites specifically aimed at diverse populations,” Slotnick wrote. Posting outlets include the Massachusetts State Police Minority Officers Association, the Latino Police Officers Association, the Asian Jade Society, and various trade magazines, DiFava said. 

Current requirements include police academy training and three years of experience. Slotnick wrote, “MIT seeks potential officers with the qualifications, experience, and judgment necessary to recognize and respect the unique aspects of working with and protecting the student, staff, and faculty population of an urban campus.”

DiFava explained that first, HR professionals “will comb through the resumes to make sure that the minimum requirements are reached.” Then, a phone interview is conducted. Candidates who pass the phone interview are interviewed by HR, MITCPA representatives, supervisory representatives, and patrol officers. 

The interviews include exercises like asking the candidate to write a report or answering how they would handle certain scenarios. Officers who pass these interviews are given job offers, DiFava said. 

DiFava also noted the challenges of hiring officers for a small department. Larger departments like Boston or state police are more attractive, with more “diversity in terms of things to do,” such as canine and mounted units. “The competition is steep” to attract diverse, young candidates, DiFava said. “We’re at the bottom of this pipeline.” 

Policies 

MITPD’s use-of-force policy is based on policies recommended by the International Association of Campus Enforcement Administrators and the Massachusetts Police Training Committee, DiFava said.

DiFava explained that the former's policies are “crafted” to the U.S., whereas the latter’s policies are “more germane to the state”; the two are combined to form a locally-tailored policy. DiFava described MITPD’s policies as “solid” and “very similar” to those of Cambridge Police

The policies are written at the Institute level. They are forwarded from MITPD to HR and then examined by the MITCPA for “impact bargaining,” DiFava said. Policies are finalized after discussions between the MITCPA, the MITCPA’s attorney, and human resources. 

Students have not provided any input into MITPD’s operational policies, DiFava said. 

In the event that an officer is suspected to be in minor violation of a policy, DiFava reports the incident to the Office of the Executive Vice President, and MITPD conducts an internal investigation and consults with HR. For a major violation, HR will conduct the investigation. If the officer is determined to be in violation, then the officer will face disciplinary action, ranging from a verbal reprimand to termination. MITPD keeps a written record of all violations and disciplinary actions, DiFava said. 

Slotnick wrote that because all patrol officers are members of the MITCPA, “they are afforded due process in relation to disciplinary matters, and are entitled both to file grievances and to have union representation if they disagree with the discipline imposed.”

DiFava said that MITPD averages seven to ten complaints a year. In the past year, some officers have received written reprimands, but MITPD has not had a termination “in a very, very long time.” 

MITPD works cooperatively with other local policing organizations, including the Cambridge Police Department. 

When MIT has large events like commencement, Cambridge Police help with traffic, sweep the lawn with explosive detection canines, and monitor areas surrounding, but outside, campus. Cambridge Police also provide an Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel on standby in case of a suspicious package, DiFava said. 

In addition, MIT utilizes some of Cambridge Police’s forensics services for investigations, DiFava said. The administrative captain of the training unit also coordinates with the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council and local police academies, according to the 2019 Annual Security Report.

MITPD does not participate in any policing of non-MIT property. MITPD does not have a memorandum of understanding or contractual agreement with other policing agencies, and is not a member of any mutual aid agreement, DiFava said.

None of MITPD’s policies are publicly available. However, MITPD in the early stages of reviewing its policies and working with the Office of the General Counsel to present some policies to the public, DiFava said. 

“Our review will focus on making sure the policies provide clear guidance; that they are compliant with local, state and federal laws; and that they appropriately balance the interests of the police to protect community members with the need to also protect members of our community from possible policy violations,” DiVincenzo wrote in an email to The Tech

“Part of the review will also include ensuring the campus police policies are consistent with our broader Institute policies and procedures.” For example, the policies and their publicization must protect the privacy of officers and “not violate any commitments MIT has made as part of the collective bargaining contract it has with the MIT Police Union,” DiVincenzo wrote.

The process is meant to ensure that the policies are updated and understandable to the public, as “police policies are very bureaucratic” and “are difficult for a non-police person who hasn’t had the training to really understand what they are really all about,” DiFava said.

DiFava said that these policies were not previously publicly available because such a request was never made. In addition, among “Ivy Plus” schools — Ivy League universities, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago — only the University of Chicago has publicly released any policing policies.

Although DiFava said he thinks releasing “the bulk” of MITPD’s policies is “perfectly okay,” there are some policies that he believes should not be made public, such as responses to certain areas of campus, including the nuclear reactor, as well as radio call codes, because doing so would give criminals an advantage and endanger officers.

MIT also has policies regarding when Graduate Resident Advisors (GRAs) are advised to contact MITPD. Judy Robinson, senior associate dean for residential education, wrote in a statement emailed to The Tech that “GRAs are encouraged to contact MIT Police in situations when there’s a threat to students’ health or safety — such as a Title IX issue — or if drugs, weapons, or other dangerous materials need to be secured and disposed of. MIT Police also customarily accompany MIT EMTs when they respond to calls.” 

Moving Forward 

Objective 2 of the Support Black Lives at MIT petition urges administrators to “make MIT safe for all students by investigating and implementing new models for public safety that reduce the scale of policing and increase safety and well-being.”

The petition demands that MITPD provide an independent public reporting mechanism for discriminatory incidents, produce a “regularly published log of all police use of force and misconduct,” implement a “zero-tolerance policy for police who engage in discrimination or other misconduct,” publish information on the MITPD website about the officer hiring process, and “explicitly prohibit the use of non-MIT police on MIT-owned or operated spaces.” 

The petition states that “members of the Black community at MIT do not feel that MIT Police adequately provides for their safety.”

BGSA Co-President Ufuoma Ovienmhada G said in an interview with The Tech that Cory Frontin G and Randi Williams G initially ideated on policing. The full petition combined their ideas and BGSA Co-President Chelsea Nneka Onyeador G and Ovienmhada’s calls for the fulfillment of the 2015 BSU/BGSA recommendations

Ovienmhada explained that the petition was developed following the nationwide protests against police brutality against Black communities. In an email to The Tech, Oviemhada wrote that the group hoped to initiate dialogues about policing at MIT “in the hopes of identifying opportunities for change that would better serve the needs of all MIT community members, especially the groups that have been historically disproportionately harmed by policing.”

Frontin wrote in an email to The Tech that he was “particularly moved by the one-two punch of the Christian Cooper incident in Central Park, followed by George Floyd's death.” Frontin wrote that despite Cooper’s Harvard education, career as a writer, and “stereotypically white” bird watching hobby, Amy Cooper called the police, claiming that Christian Cooper was threatening her. 

“It has become very clear in the last month that we might have our elite university credentials and degrees, our wealth and our connections, our friendships with white peers, not to mention soaring heights of education, but my Black peers and I can no longer pretend that they afford us protection from being a moment away from needless and extralegal violence,” Frontin wrote. 

The specific demands were based on the group’s examination of MITPD’s website, research of local police abolition movements, and stories from MIT community members about their interactions with MIT Police, Ovienmhada said. 

Onyeador “was not aware of previous campaigns around policing at MIT.” Onyeador explained that hyper-awareness of policing situations is “an unspoken part of the Black experience” and wrote in an email to The Tech that due to the normalization of such practices, there “wasn’t space for us to be able to question some of the policing practices on campus that can be harmful to Black students and the MIT community as a whole.” 

Onyeador expressed several concerns about policing from the perspective of her role as a GRA in Baker House. 

For example, based on protocol, GRAs call MITPD when a student needs serious medical attention, and both the police and the ambulance are dispatched. Onyeador said that in these situations, “I’ve had a lot of interactions where the police come in and they’re trying to gather facts. But it’s not clear what they’re gathering these facts for, and they also come in and make a lot of accusations of the students and generally contribute to a hostile environment.” 

At a Baker house meeting, “multiple people expressed discomfort” about calling MITPD about students smoking marijuana, as such a situation is not “volatile” and calling police would likely “contribute to student anxiety,” Onyeador said. 

“Neither students nor GRAs have reported concerns about police conduct to the Residential Education Office,” Robinson wrote. 

DiFava said that he believes MIT Police officers are doing work “appropriate to our charge” and that none of the officers’ responsibilities can be “readily replaced by non-sworn personnel.”

MIT Police and senior administrators “met to launch an ongoing dialog” about the ideas in the petition the week of June 22, Reif wrote in a letter to the MIT community July 1.

DiVincenzo wrote that such conversations are a “priority” for himself, DiFava, and the senior administration. 

MITCPA President West declined to meet with BSU and BGSA representatives. West wrote, “Due to our responsibilities to provide public safety services to all community members, police officers do not engage in political or social movements on campus.”

DiFava said that MITPD is “ready to participate” in these conversations and as part of the community they “want to be involved in a dialogue that could only make things better.” 

DiFava added that he is “very interested” in adding a mental health professional to the team to join calls in which someone is suffering from a mental illness. However, he noted that officers cannot be certain that someone is suffering from a mental illness until they arrive at the call. 

“It’s all about being trusted,” DiFava said. “And the only way you do that is by open and honest dialogue.”

Update 7/9/20: This article was corrected to state that 54 members of MITPD reported their demographic information to MITPD. A previous version of the article wrote that 57 members reported their information.