Defund Oberlin Police to End History of Racial Oppression

The movement for Black Lives does not exist only in large cities or suburban enclaves. The Oberlin Police Department is a small town microcosm of America’s racist system of policing. The time is long overdue for College students and Oberlin residents to check the OPD’s power and show up for local mutual aid initiatives.

In the words of Associate Professor of Africana Studies Charles Peterson, “The plantation overseer has become the patrol officer” — and a utopian legacy of abolitionism and inclusion doesn’t vindicate Oberlin from its role in racial oppression. The OPD has upheld a long and brutal history of racial fear, segregation, and poverty in this town. 

Policing in Oberlin grew out of poorer whites being rewarded by fugitive slave laws for capturing Black people in the North. Midway through the 20th century, law enforcement in Oberlin came to be more structured by rules and regulations in its usage of force. Yet, in the ’60s, the OPD continued to use force on multiple occasions to suppress anti-war activism on campus. In April 1990, according to an Oberlin Student Defense Committee, a student demonstration in front of the president’s home spiraled into chaos as officers arrested a student speaker during his speech and strangled him in a chokehold. Meanwhile, other officers removed their badges to beat protestors, dragging some by their hair.

Currently, the department employs 17 full-time officers and 13 semi-trained civilians. Its 2020 general budget — not including department-specific pensions and trust funds — is $2,890,964.24. If the department were abolished and these funds went directly to Oberlin residents, each household would receive about $1,120 per year.

Arrests and traffic stops by OPD skyrocketed last year. The number of adults arrested by the department increased to 828 arrests in 2019 from an average of 461 arrests the four years before. From 2018 to 2019, the number of arrests for speeding increased sevenfold, and the number of juvenile arrests — mostly for larceny theft, “unruly” behavior, and “curfew/runaway” — doubled. OPD does not publish any statistics by race.

In the 2016 Gibson’s incident that led to Oberlin College’s infamous lawsuit, OPD unabashedly took Allyn Gibson’s side and criminalized the three Black students involved, one of whom was accused of using a fake ID to purchase alcohol. Several witnesses reported that Gibson put one of the students in a chokehold, and that two other students were attempting to restrain him to prevent him from harming the student further. The police denied these claims in court. They based their statement primarily on Gibson’s testimony, and proceeded to arrest and charge only the students.

In September 2016, two Black Oberlin residents, Monique Brooks-Cochran and Arvis Townsend, spoke out against the OPD. Townsend asserted that in the previous four years, he had been served up to nine traffic and criminal warrants issued just by one officer, patrolman Bashshar Wiley, who frequently parked his patrol car in front of their home on a dead-end street. In addition, Townsend described being pulled over and stalked by police cars numerous times for no reason, including once being pulled over on his bicycle so an officer could check his backpack for stolen items. Chief Juan Torres defended his officers, saying, “If an officer has a reason to suspect a person may have committed a crime, he can stop and ask.” 

These publicized incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Any Black resident or student of Oberlin can attest to being frightened, followed, profiled, questioned, or harassed by local law enforcement.

In November 2017, Oberlin hired a new police chief, Ryan Warfield, who is Black. This year, in response to protests spurred by the murders of George Floyd and others, Warfield skirted around the issue of systemic reform. He wrote in Facebook post, “Nationally we are dealing with a systemic issue that needs to change, and policing is only a small part of that change. … The Oberlin Police Department and I are not perfect, but we adhere to professionalism.” In a separate post, he urged protestors to “keep it peaceful,” encouraging non-specific “open community dialogue” to address the department’s problems.

Chief Warfield has also touted the OPD’s patronization of Lexipol, a professional organization assisting smaller police departments to uphold federal, state, and local standards for use of force. However, Lexipol has been criticized by both law enforcement groups and civil rights organizations for failing to promote de-escalation techniques, permitting use of deadly force even when a suspect does not have a weapon, and by-and-large instituting corporate control of use-of-force policies with police union cooperation.

There is no doubt that OPD must be stripped of its current function and power, which brings us to the elephant in the room: Where are the protests? Where are the marches, demands, and student activism at this bastion of racial progressivism? If white students can organize in a flash against jaywalking fines, why aren’t we showing up for Black liberation?

Oberlin students and families can help in the short term by researching and donating to local organizations that provide services for underprivileged residents, such as El Centro de Servicios Sociales, the Lorain County Urban League, and Oberlin Community Services. is an excellent resource to find these organizations. Oberlin City Council is also preparing to draft its new annual budget, in the thick of a pandemic that has left many residents jobless and homeless. 

We students must urgently pressure our elected officials to redirect funding from the police department into reparations, housing, unemployment assistance, and mental health resources. In particular, the Oberlin Justice Collective is a local committee that formed in June with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their goals are to establish a citizen review board for police accountability, share information about the city budget, dismantle police power, and create a Legal Defense Fund for Oberlin’s Black community. Student activism for local causes should prioritize the work of existing local organizations like this one. Let’s give OJC the manpower and resources it needs to make an impact.

In the long term, student organizations must form to support local coalitions for mutual aid. The COMA initiative is admirable, but most Oberlin students have yet to show up for local causes. Obies, particularly the vast majority of us who are white: we have an obligation to dismantle any system that protects white supremacy. To do our part, we can start by addressing the broken system of policing in Oberlin, Ohio.