March 3, 2010

Packed forum presses admins on Reg arrest

[img id="78161" align="alignleft"]

Students and community members, frustrated by what they perceived as years of racial profiling by the UCPD, confronted University, Library, and UCPD administrators Tuesday, in a charged open forum in the Reynolds Club.

Over 200 people attended the forum, which was convened to address a powerful student response to last Wednesday’s arrest of fourth-year Mauriece Dawson in the A-level, which many at the meeting said is part of a larger culture of racial profiling on the part of UCPD.

A Regenstein clerk called the UCPD Wednesday night to report an “unruly” group of students, including Dawson, although witnesses said they were not unusually loud for the popular study area. When told to leave the building by a UCPD officer, Dawson repeatedly asked why he had to leave; the officer placed him in a choke hold, pinned him to the floor, and placed him under arrest. Witnesses said Dawson, who is black, was never asked for identification.

Administrators and attendees stressed the need for a quick investigation into police and library staff conduct, but argued how reforms could dispel a simmering feeling of mistrust.

The forum was sponsored by the Office of Campus and Student Life, and Student Government (SG).

Administrators had few specific answers to attendees’ questions, citing the ongoing investigations—three are underway, within the Library, UCPD, and Campus and Student Life—or about the specifics of Dawson’s case.

However, UCPD Chief Marlon Lynch did say the sergeant who arrested Dawson has been reassigned but has not removed from the force, and Vice President for Campus and Student Life Kim Goff-Crews said the charges can’t be dropped based on talks with University counsel.

“The charges were made by the police, so they’re responsible for shepherding them through the system. We don’t think, legally, the University can pull them back,” Goff-Crews said, adding later, “We’ll do what we can” to support the student.

Concerns over this and other potential cases of racial profiling dominated proceedings. Around 50 attendees raised their hands when Dawson asked how many felt that they, or someone they knew, had been racially profiled by UCPD officers. More than half were black. “This is not an isolated incident,” Dawson said.

Some in the audience told stories, often in great detail, in which they felt that they or some one they know had been profiled by UCPD. Divinity Ph.D. student Reverend Paul R. Ford (M.Div. '05) interrupted one administrator to say the UCPD has engaged in racial profiling since at least 2003, when he said the University accosted a black School of Social Service Administration graduate student when he met a white, female friend on campus at 3 a.m.; the first thing Ford said officers did was ask the woman if she was okay, suggesting they viewed the student as a threat.

Wanting to “cut the crap,” Ford received applause when he yelled: “I am sick and tired of black students being racially profiled at the University of Chicago by their own police department.”

Two members of the audience, both black, recounted recent incidents when they were stopped by UCPD officers outside of the Reg; both said they were doing nothing suspicious. One of those students said one police officer involved didn’t cooperate when he asked for his badge number, and Lynch confirmed an investigation is underway in that case.

While first-year Ariel McCleese, a witness to Dawson’s arrest, said the lack of a UCPD response made her feel “overlooked”—she said she received one response from 25 e-mails to administrators—Lynch said the UCPD is taking students’ claims seriously. There is an internal investigation underway at the department, he said, for which the more than 30 students who are listed as witnesses will be contacted. He also said that there is an external body that investigates cases of police misconduct including instances of excessive force and civil rights violations.

“This isn’t cops training cops. This is professionals within the University of Chicago culture assisting us with what the lifestyle is here,” he said. “It takes time to change a culture, and those who have established patterns...we will take the necessary action to remove them from employment.” He said achieving “organizational change” would take time, and urged those in the audience to participate.

Many at the forum were confused about ID policy, and Lynch pointed to the fine print on the back of the card, where it says “Must be shown on demand.” When investigating a call, Lynch said an officer should attempt to identify the person about whom the call was made, to hear his or her side of the story, and then to make an arrest if the person is not forthcoming. “Can you ask questions to an officer? Sure, of course you can,” Lynch said, but allowed for exceptions. He said a police officer is expected to ask questions of the student before making an arrest; witnesses have said that did not occur in Dawson’s case.

Goff-Crews said the ID policy needs clarification and that students should help administrators understand “how do we talk to staff and train that you feel comfortable” in showing identification.

One student asked how a University affiliate can be trespassing on University property. Once a student has been asked to leave, and then refuses, Lynch said, “That’s when it’s criminal trespass.”

Assistant Director of the Library Jim Vaughn was the most remorseful administrator who spoke. “This is something that we feel very badly about and...we [at the Library] are investigating,” Vaughn said, adding he was personally saddened at what happened.

When some in the audience raised concerns that Library employees call police too often, Vaughn disagreed. “We rely on you to self-police the library,” he said. “We do this [call UCPD] when people refuse to abide by a library policy.”

However, Goff-Crews said there may be a misconception of what is permissible in the A-level. “I don’t think most adults understand the A-level culture,” Goff-Crews said, referring to 50- and 60-year-olds. “It’s a student culture, and people talk.”

Attendees pointed to other times when no serious action was taken in previous instances of Library policies being broken, including when “white frat boys” drank beer and ate pizza in the A-level. “I can walk around naked, but I can’t laugh,” one student said, referring to another unpunished student.

Goff-Crews asked the audience for suggestions at “structures” in which students and community members can help adapt UCPD policy, but she did not receive concrete answers; at another point students asked her how they might get involved. She and Lynch put forward a few proposals, including a SG­led committee, a liaison with the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and more regular open forums on the subject.

Divinity School Dean Richard Rosengarten also attended the meeting, but did not speak.

Many of those interviewed after the forum said they hadn’t expected administrators would answer many of their questions, given that investigations are ongoing. Nevertheless, second-year Margaret Marion said the meeting wasn’t as productive as it could have been.

“I understand their limitations, and with all due respect, I understand they couldn’t disclose certain information, but they still weren’t helpful in proposing potential changes,” said Marion, who witnessed Dawson’s arrest, filed a misconduct report with UCPD as the incident unfolded, and helped gather signatures after Dawson was taken away.

“I don’t feel hopeful at all,” Marion said. “I think this is going to blow over, and the only way this isn’t going to blow over is if enough of us speak up.”

Director of the University Community Service Center and longtime Woodlawn resident Wallace Goode said the UCPD has a history of racial profiling.

“What occurred has been part of the UCPD’s M.O. ever since I can remember, and students often hear the story of when I was by harassed by the UCPD when I was a sophomore in high schoolthat’s 1968.”

Goode said he saw “frustration, concrete examples of unfair treatment, a desire to be a part of the solution, and doubt that the University will successfully address the situation” at the forum, but he had hope that the situation would finally be addressed, not least of all because he had expected the discourse to be more heated.

“This is a real opportunity for Kim Goff-Crews, Marlon Lynch, and a committed student community to turn this around,” he said.