Local activist group USC Forward led a car caravan through the University Park neighborhood on Feb. 11 to push for the re-allocation of USC Department of Public Safety funds amid increased debate over what the future of student safety should look like.

USC Forward, a project of local labor union SEIU 721, is a group of students, faculty and community members who aim to “restore the promise of higher education” by making quality schooling accessible to all. In a statement on their website about their latest protest, they called on the university to “reallocate $50 million from the current USC DPS budget to fund scholarships for 2,000 LAUSD students.”

Felipe Caceres, a member of USC Forward and lifelong resident of South Los Angeles, emphasized the need for the university to give back to the community it resides in.

“We think there need to be resources put into the community,” Caceres said. “We have low-wealth areas here in Los Angeles that are not being serviced by a billion-dollar private university.”

“Our students and our community deserve access not only to the campus, but to a promising higher education, not just those who can buy it,” he added.

Protestors also objected to USC’s decision to hire former Los Angeles Police Department officers, including Sergeant Peter Foster, who was fired from the department after a colleague won a $1.2m racial harassment lawsuit against him.

In an official statement about the protest, the university wrote that “[DPS] is committed to serving the entire USC campus community … The department works hard to shape its training around ensuring a safe campus community while respecting freedom of expression.”

The university’s statement also mentioned the DPS Community Advisory Board (CAB), which was established last fall to examine campus public safety practices. Input can be given through the DPS CAB website and at any of the public safety sessions which are happening now until Feb. 20.

The Feb. 11 protest is only the latest development in the debate over DPS’s future role in and around USC’s campuses. The upcoming Undergraduate Student Government elections have wrought intense conversations about the subject. Presidential candidates sparred over future plans for campus policing in a debate on Feb. 4 — Alexandra Gill and her vice presidential candidate Del Wood both pushed against abolishing DPS, instead advocating for increased transparency and de-escalation training. Candidates Alexis Areias and Lucy Warren advocated for the Black Student Association’s plan to defund and rebuild DPS.

Gill referenced her own experience as a victim when arguing for student safety, asking,”Can any of the other presidential candidates look at me, a victim of a violent crime, who has very publicly shared being raped on a college campus, in the eye and tell me that I don’t deserve to feel safe?”

Gill is not the only student to express a desire for increased efforts against criminal activity on campus.

Over the summer, USC sophomore Katie Rodewald said she was packing up her apartment at the University Gateway complex near campus when an intruder cornered her in her bathroom. Though she managed to escape physically unharmed, she said the incident left her “afraid to go into her apartment alone” and made her feel there should be efforts made to increase the physical presence of DPS officers and campus security personnel. She also said there is a distance between students and the campus security meant to protect them.

“Over the last few weeks, there have been increasingly horrible [DPS crime alert] emails sent out,” Rodewald said. “I think Yellow Jackets [sic] could be a lot more involved. I’d like them to make us feel more comfortable.”

In 2020, Los Angeles saw an increase in homicides, car thefts and shootings — which increased by 40% — while other crimes like robberies, rapes and lesser property crimes declined. Following the state’s first shutdown order, street robberies, the rate of assaults and other violent crimes began to slow. During the summer though, shootings and homicide rates increased. By the end of December, the unofficial tally of homicides was 349 — nearly 38% more than the previous year.

In a post on the USC subreddit, some students raised concerns about public safety around campus and whether a larger DPS presence may exacerbate tensions and result in more instances of racial profiling.

Despite increases in some crimes in the city, and incidents like Rodewald’s, analysis of crime trends from March to Dec. 31, 2020 show that there was a 23% reduction in overall crime around USC in comparison to the same time period in 2019, according to DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle.

“People’s perception, whether students or staff based on crime alerts or high profile crimes that get media attention, give a misleading impression of what is actually happening in the neighborhood,” Carlisle said in an interview with Annenberg Media. “I attribute a lot of [the crime decrease] to fewer students and opportunities for crimes.”