Content warning: This article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including gender and power-based violence. Survivors of such violence can access virtual confidential services through Cal Poly Safer’s website.
The name of the sexual assault survivor in this story has been changed in order to protect her full identity.
“Why were you alone with him?” the officer asked. “Girls like you need to be way more careful.”
Two years ago, a Cal Poly Police officer questioned Emily as she sat in his office alongside an advocate from Safer — an on-campus confidential resource that addresses sexual assault, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, stalking, sexual exploitation and harassment.
Emily, a sophomore at the time, reported 11 incidents of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence by her ex-partner, which occurred in both the dorms and off-campus housing earlier that year. Her case included about five witnesses and multiple pieces of photo and video evidence. But after a “cold and dismissive” five-hour interview with campus police, Emily said, “They did nothing about it.”
Amid calls to reallocate campus police funding, Mustang News analyzed years of university data — revealing a recent jump in reported dating and sex-related crimes as well as a sizeable funding disparity between campus police and other services that have responded to such cases more adequately.
Despite an overall drop in crime rates, sex-related crime reports climb — as does the campus police budget.
Since 2014, on-campus crimes have fluctuated year-to-year with a notable decrease in crimes reported since 2018. Drug and alcohol offenses comprised the overwhelming majority of crimes recorded in Cal Poly Clery reports since 2014, though they dropped by nearly half of that in 2019.
However, the recently released 2020 Annual Security Report — which includes crime statistics from 2017 to 2019 — saw a drastic increase in the proportion of recorded sex and dating-related crimes.
Breakdown of on-campus crime by year
Dating-related crimes, which include instances of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking demonstrated a 880% increase in reports between 2018 and 2019. Sex-related crimes also saw a steep increase of 178% since 2018. In one year, reported instances of on-campus rape increased from seven to 20.
Breakdown of Dating-Related Crimes on Campus, 2014-2019
Breakdown of Sex-Related Crimes on Campus, 2014-2019
Safer advocates said many survivors choose not to report at all after they’ve utilized confidential resources. According to Safer’s data, the number of survivors who reach out to them — regardless of whether they choose to file an official report — has steadily increased since 2015.
“When we see an increase [in reports] I think it’s more indicative that we’re doing our jobs to increase knowledge and information,” Safer Advocate Gillian Cutshaw said. “More students are aware of what’s out there and feeling like they have a place they can go that will have their back.”
Where Students Went to Report Sexual Assault (2019-20)
Safer’s appointments and reports have increased as they’ve garnered more funding and staffing over the years. However, abolition activists are concerned that unlike the $2.3 million put toward the campus police budget, funding for Safer and other departments doesn’t meet the growing demand for their services.
Cal Poly Campus Police Chief George Hughes said in an email the police budget and staff size have increased largely due to a rise in Cal Poly’s population, higher costs for equipment and technology and a need to recruit quality officers.
“Our officers’ salaries were not competitive with their CSU colleagues or with the other local jurisdictions,” Hughes wrote in an email. “Recruiting and retaining quality officers was becoming very difficult as a result, and a pay increase was needed to retain and acquire professional staff.”
Campus police respond to assistance calls, provide event security, work on crime prevention and more throughout the university. Typically there are only two to three campus officers on duty at a given time.
Campus Health and Wellbeing encompasses services such as Safer and Counseling Services, while Student Affairs includes the Disability Resource Center and Office of Diversity and Inclusion — all of which activists said should receive more funding.
Safer vs. Campus Police Budget
Activists are examining what reallocating police funding could look like at Cal Poly — and how the budget difference between campus police and services like Safer can burden survivors.
“Even though I met with Safer dozens of times throughout the years and love their staff and they gave me invaluable support, it was always hard to get an appointment because they were so short-staffed and overworked,” Emily said.
Despite their increasing finances and responsibilities, Emily said campus police are not meeting the needs of students.
Emily said that without a rape kit and with incidents not reported within 48 hours, campus police dropped the case. This led her to turn to the Office of Equal Opportunity, which enforces the Title IX law prohibiting sex discrimination at federally funded educational institutions. There, the week-long police investigation turned into six months, and Emily’s abuser was ordered a suspension.
“I understand that police have a purpose to a point but … they’re not handling many situations correctly,” Emily said. “A way more important thing would be to give more money to the Counseling and Safer and staff in Title IX who are just taking on much more [and] they’re very well-trained in what they do.”
“Their presence on campus wouldn’t be missed”: Envisioning a community without police
Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO (AACCS) is an organization that formed amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and are now calling on Cal Poly to disarm campus police and reallocate resources to other campus organizations.
In response to AACCS’ demands, Cal Poly recently hired an additional temporary Safer advocate and committed to putting more resources toward Black, Latinx and Native campus centers. But the University has no plans to decrease campus police funding, according to University Spokesperson Matt Lazier.
One AACCS member, aerospace engineering sophomore Nathalia De Souza, said police aren’t fit for helping sexual violence survivors.
“Frankly, the only thing the police officers are going to do is probably slut shame you while you’re trying to ask for help and crying,” De Souza said.
De Souza and AACCS said they believe in reallocating funding to campus resources such as Safer and the Cal Poly Food Pantry, which helps students facing homelessness and food insecurity. De Souza also advocates for shifting responsibility to trained employees who are unarmed and can de-escalate situations.
An alternative to campus police is known as restorative and transformative justice — available at Cal Poly as Restorative Opportunity for Accountability and Dialogue (ROAD) training.
Rather than pursuing punitive justice, survivors can ask their perpetrators to complete the ROAD training program, which asks people who’ve caused harm to “take accountability through education, reflection and dialogue,” according to Safer Advocate Gillian Cutshaw.
What started as an option for petty crimes has grown into an option for perpetrators of violent crimes, especially sexual violence, in the past 10 years. Safer has recently expanded the ROAD training program to acknowledge the intersectionality of abuse, racism, sexism and life circumstances that may have influenced the perpetrator.
Emily was told restorative justice is recommended for people with a so-called “he said, she said” case, since “that’s probably the only way you would get any results.”
“It can kind of just be extra trauma for you without results to go through a whole hearing,” Emily said.
Competing visions: Abolition or reform?
Activists said police aren’t trained to respond to issues like sexual violence, but Safer trains campus police themselves to help fix that.
Safer staff aims to teach officers about trauma-informed interviewing, gender and power-based violence and other related trends that they see on campus.
Safer said they are now ramping up training to be more “robust, formal and consistent,” which would take place multiple times per year. Though that plan is not finalized yet, campus police have been enthusiastic about it according to Cutshaw, who is one of the advocates coordinating training.
Beyond statewide police training mandates, Chief Hughes requires campus police to complete additional training in areas such as implicit bias, anti-bias policing and de-escalation.
CSU Abolition Network Organizer and Cal State Los Angeles faculty member Beth Baker said attempts to improve police training have “borne very little fruit.” Beyond racism in policing, Baker said more training has not made police more capable to respond to mental health crises either, which is why she advocates for abolition.
Yet abolition may have unintended consequences — including having to rely more on Title IX despite its limitations.
Although Safer’s data shows most students who report choosing to go through Title IX already, Title IX only has jurisdiction over cases where the perpetrator is a current Cal Poly student, staff or faculty member.
“They only exist to protect the university legally, not to help university employees [or students] who experience forms of harassment and bullying that are damaging, but that might not be the basis for a lawsuit,” Baker said.
Baker added that Title IX only helps if it seems the victim would “definitively win in a court of law.” When Baker faced gender-based harassment from senior male employees on multiple occasions and reported it to Title IX, it didn’t stop the men from getting promoted.
“If the harassment is not obviously sexual, as in touching or written propositions, you’re out of luck,” Baker said.
A long walk home
Midway through Emily’s interview with campus police two years ago, her Safer advocate had appointments with other students that left Emily alone with the officer.
The officer asked her to call her abuser casually in case he were to admit anything offhand. But Emily said the call raised questions from her abuser, and with it rose her fear of their next encounter.
As the meeting came to a close, Emily requested an escort for her walk home from campus; she knew her abuser had just left his afternoon class. The officer informed her that no one was available, so Emily left alone. On her walk home, she saw him.
Emily recalled freshman year orientation, where campus police told students, “We’re here for you. We should be the first people you call.” It’s something she once believed, but now, Emily says it’s a facade — not protection.
Since Emily’s meeting with campus police, she said the abuser, now a senior, has sued California State University. This delays his suspension and enables him to continue studying at Cal Poly and participate in Greek Life as a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Beyond the case itself, Emily said she’s faced social repercussions for speaking out, including losing some of her friends. Moreover, she said her experience has discouraged other survivors from seeking help in fear of a similar outcome.
This story comes from The Hill, a team of reporters and data analysts focused on data-driven and investigative stories at Mustang News. Click here to read more stories from The Hill.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct inaccurate numbers regarding the increase in reports of on-campus rape and related crimes as documented in the 2020 Annual Security Report.