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Silent Might

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eye on the news

Silent Might

After another student is murdered, Columbia University’s leadership decides that the best position is no position. December 6, 2021
Public safety
New York
Education

Last week’s murder of Columbia graduate student Davide Giri, the second random killing of a university student in two years, at first appeared to pose quite the dilemma for Columbia’s leadership. How can a university appeal for more police protection—as some students are calling for—in a cloistered academic environment in which all policing is regarded as racist brutality?

Columbia’s Morningside Heights neighborhood is increasingly unsafe, with shootings up threefold and assaults up 60 percent in the surrounding precinct in two years. (Robberies are down—possibly because the police quickly caught the three boys who robbed and killed 18-year-old freshman Tessa Majors in 2019, also coincidentally putting a halt to a spate of similar crimes in the park around the same time.) During last Thursday night’s attack on Giri, allegedly at the hands of 25-year-old career violent criminal Vincent Pinkney, who was out on “supervised release” from prison when he chose his random victims, another Columbia scholar suffered serious injury. Also last week, a different attacker targeted a woman in the closest subway station to campus, spewing anti-Asian and misogynistic slurs as he assaulted her.

Some students and alumni are appealing for more security. “When a student goes to school, I feel like they are entitled to a certain level of safety which has not been provided to them,” one graduate student told the Columbia Spectator. That seems reasonable enough, but the school is also going to hear a lot of this: “I do not believe that the presence of more NYPD will make our community safer,” said another grad student. “I believe Columbia needs to reframe their approach to the community they inhabit. They need to think of how they can change the structural conditions that create poverty in the surroundings and thus increase crime rates.” A-plus in grad-student ideology, but that’s not how New York cut the number of murders in the precinct around Columbia—15 in 1990—by more than 90 percent by 2018.

University president Lee Bollinger has already hinted at how he’ll keep more of his students alive and unstabbed while not triggering the campus mob. In his original statement on Giri’s death, Bollinger kept to a stance of perfect neutrality. “Police have a suspect in custody,” he informed students and staff. “The University is working closely with the NYPD to learn more details of the attack.” The university didn’t thank the NYPD for catching the 25-year-old suspect so quickly. Students and staff can thus make up their own minds about whether the quick arrest is good police work, another symptom of America’s carceral state, or entirely irrelevant information: after all, they’ve been learning for years that policing doesn’t make us safer.

In a separate statement, Bollinger reiterated that Columbia leadership is “concerned about the safety of our campus and surrounding neighborhoods. Columbia is working directly with the New York Police Department and City officials to think through the needs of everyone.” It’s not exactly clear who “everyone” is here, and what their “needs” are; is there some party that would object to feeling safer? (Bollinger never takes clear positions when something is even remotely controversial; his statement during last year’s BLM protests was more word salad than a profile in courage on either “side.”)

At any rate, in yet a third statement this weekend in the aftermath of Giri’s murder, this time in unsigned remarks, the university just as neutrally informed students and staff that “starting today, the NYPD will temporarily provide an increased police presence after 7 PM in Morningside Park. In addition, more enforcement officers will be assigned by the Parks Department to the park every day from 10 AM to 10 PM.” A day later, Columbia added, in another unsigned statement, that “the NYPD has said it will further enhance security by temporarily assigning patrol vehicles inside Morningside Park 24 hours a day.”

Again, no word on whether this is a good thing—and no thanking of the city of New York and the NYPD. This strategy is no different from the university’s response after Tessa Majors’s murder in 2019. Back then, Bollinger said only that the university was “coordinating closely with the NYPD.”

It’s pretty clear: you’re not going to hear Bollinger calling for more police, or for state criminal-justice policies that ensure that violent felons such as Pinkney aren’t released onto the streets in the first place to escalate their earlier attacks into murder.

But if it just so happens that the NYPD catches a violent suspect quickly and puts him on Rikers Island; and if it just so happens that the city and state of New York decide that such law-and-order policies are appropriate; and if it just so happens that student, staff, and faculty see more police presence in the areas surrounding the campus—well, Columbia, at least until its paying customers’ fears recede, won’t complain.

Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

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