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Black students' experiences with bodycams in halls

Morayo Omogbenigun speaks to Black students about how they feel about security services wearing bodycams around halls.

By Morayo Omogbenigun, Second Year Social Policy

As of the 29th of January, University of Bristol campus security started wearing body cameras in efforts to enforce lockdown rules on students. Inevitably, freshers will disproportionately feel the impact of increased surveillance as security staff focus on patrolling university-owned accommodation. Morayo Omogbenigun decided to speak to a few Black students about how they feel about this new policy, and whether they think it will make the University a safer place.

The University announced that security staff would start wearing bodycams in order to keep students safe and secure in the covid-19 pandemic. A small minority of students have been caught having illegal parties and breaking lockdown rules, and it is hoped that the presence of bodycams will help maintain transparency when students are caught breaking rules and also ensure appropriate behaviour from both parties in interactions between students and security.

As reported in Epigram, body cameras will only start recording ‘when officers are responding to an incident or come across a developing incident.’

However, for some Black students there are uncomfortable connotations of security staff patrolling campus equipped with bodycams. Some Black students in the UK have faced hostile treatment from security services in the past, so I was particularly interested in talking to Black University of Bristol students.

The general consensus from Black students I spoke to about the effectiveness of this policy is that it wouldn’t result in less students breaking lockdown. Nat Sodzi, a first year Politics and Sociology student, tells me, ‘the introduction of bodycams has bred a new kind of frustration, and made the gap between students and the University even bigger. If anything, people would just be more cautious about not being caught.’

At a time when students need to feel supported by the University, the introduction of these body cameras confirms the current widespread belief in public media of students being troublemakers and super-spreaders, rather than vulnerable young people living far from home who are looking for support. Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol has also echoed the sentiment that students have been unfairly demonised in the media.

The implementation of body cameras means students could be issued more formal warnings, as opposed to written warnings; ‘there is a feeling as if you can be punished for even the smallest of slip ups such as forgetting a mask in the lift,’ a first year student who wants to be kept anonymous tells me.

On top of freshers adjusting to a new workload nothing like the A-Levels they didn’t have the opportunity to sit last year, they are left feeling paranoid in what is supposed to be a safe space away from home. This is compounded by the government’s neglect of students during this pandemic - there is a feeling of students being warehoused and overpoliced while still being expected to turn in high quality academic work.

‘I came to university believing that it would be liberating, and yet it feels like the complete opposite. I always feel like I’m doing something wrong’ - Nat Sodzi, first year, Politics and Sociology

Chidinma Emmanuel-Okereke, a second year Mechanical Engineering student points out that people can’t get access to university buildings without authorised key cards, so who exactly are the outsiders the University is attempting to keep out?

‘I came to university believing that it would be liberating, and yet it feels like the complete opposite. I always feel like I’m doing something wrong.’

Some Black students have reported feeling that security forces within the city already have an eye on them: ‘There was a time where I had gone to get a package from my accommodation and two policewomen started randomly questioning me,’ First Year Chemistry student Cameron Mackintosh informs me, explaining how experiences such as this can heighten the sense of hostility experienced by Black students within the city.

Meanwhile, for Sodzi, ‘There are honestly occasions where I attempt to make myself look ‘less incriminating’ by putting my hoody down or not looking at security.’ While it is self-evident that recordings can save both campus security and students from false claims, the instant association of body cameras and surveillance or harassment is a reality for many people of colour’s interactions with police.

The University is currently holding a series of meetings with SU officers and student network chairs to discuss these issues.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: ‘We would like to understand more about these concerns and are in the process of organising a meeting with sabbatical officers and student network chairs to discuss further.

‘Our Security Services team is here to keep all students and staff safe across our campuses and residences 24/7 – 365 days a year.

‘Since the start of the pandemic this has never been more important, and the team have been working incredibly hard in what are sometimes very difficult and challenging circumstances.

‘The recent introduction of body worn cameras has long been under consideration but was brought forward because of the COVID pandemic and the urgent need to keep us all safe, secure and well. We hope it will protect our community – both students and staff – and the campus from criminal activity. Worn by security officers as a standard part of their uniforms, they will help ensure appropriate behaviour in interactions with students, and vice versa. They will also help us to resolve any disputes quickly and transparently. Other universities have already successfully implemented this technology.’

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University of Bristol security staff to wear body cameras

With the University openly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and expressing their commitment to ‘decolonising’ the University, the movement’s critique of policing practices seems to have been missed. Some Black students have struggled to feel welcome at the University due to alleged campus security racial profiling, with Mackintosh recounting an incident where campus security told him ‘you don’t look like you live here.’

While lockdown rules need to be followed for all our safety, we cannot ignore the tensions between keeping students physically safe in a pandemic and protecting mental health, wellbeing and Black students’ feelings of belonging.

Have you had interactions with security services wearing bodycams?

Featured Image: Epigam / Lucy O'Neill