Two years after arrest, some say relations can improve

Street incident sparked discussion about race relations on campus

By
Monday, November 24, 2008

It was a perfect storm: A black man who students later said police had profiled as a criminal – in fact, he was a graduate student in computer science. A murky set of events and an arrest that ended in injury. Add them up and in September 2006, the campus erupted in protests and angry calls for reform.

A little more than two years later, Chipalo Street ’06 MA’07 and members of the now-defunct Coalition for Police Accountability and Institutional Transparency say the University has made strides in improving its relations with students, but much can still be done.

At the center of the controversy was Street, now a computer programmer. He and a friend were looking for a party on a Sunday night in early September 2006, when a Department of Public Safety officer approached the pair as they were coming out of Wayland Arch. They didn’t know that two women had called the Department of Public Safety not long before, complaining that two African-American men had tried to enter Keeney Quadrangle. The officer near Wayland asked Street and his friend to show identification, but Street refused and continued walking across the Main Green to Thayer Street.

The DPS officer summoned the Providence Police Department, which had been hired to provide reinforcement for patrols. Two PPD and one DPS officer stopped Street on Thayer and arrested him. He was injured in the process.

“I just remember getting hit on the back of the head and getting hit a bunch more times,” Street told The Herald last week, adding that he remembers “calling for someone to stay and watch or help or something,” as PPD took him into custody. After he was taken to the hospital, he was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

Street later filed a complaint with both police departments, claiming extreme and unnecessary violence was used against him.

In the ensuing investigation, which Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Mark Porter said he launched before Street filed his complaint, DPS found that there was no evidence of misconduct on the part of its officers, claiming the only involvement by DPS was in handcuffing Street. The University later stopped supplementing its patrols with paid PPD officers.

In the aftermath of the September incident, students formed the Coalition for Police Accountability and Institutional Transparency, Co-PAIT, in order to speak out against DPS mistreatment towards minority students and members of the gay community and increase the dialogue between students, administrators and police, said Darshan Patel ’09, a former member.

Many people in the Brown community provided testimonies that members of Co-PAIT used anonymously in campus rallies. He added that though the contents of these testimonials were always confidential, “they gave the larger Brown community a forum to un-silence themselves.”

Responding to that outcry, DPS has made progress in improving communication between students and officers and increasing transparency in the department, Porter said.

He said these improvements include actively participating in the Third World Center’s annual orientation program, sponsoring dialogue sessions between minority students and DPS officers and providing culture and diversity training with Providence Police to improve relations with community members.

This increased transparency “helps keep people honest,” Street said last week. “If (DPS officers) know that people are watching exactly what they do, then they’re more likely to dot their i’s and cross their t’s and look into every single thing.”

Street said that, looking back, the outcome of his complaint is still unclear. “In terms of my case, I just gave them the evidence, and then they came back with a conclusion,” he said. “I don’t know who came to that conclusion. I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. I don’t know anything about it so it would be interesting to know how they decided on that. But that wasn’t available.”

Porter said he does not think racial profiling was a factor in DPS’s decision to stop Street, and the investigation that followed concluded there was no misconduct on the part of DPS officers.

“The role in terms of how the officer reacted and responded to victims and the witness statements was the focus,” Porter said. “DPS has very clear policies in terms of how our officers are to stop and conduct field interviews.”

Yet Street said he thinks racial profiling was at play in his arrest. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was white, that this wouldn’t have happened or at least gone to those extremes,” Street said.

Many students agreed with Street. Co-PAIT made significant strides in raising awareness of police accountability and prompting DPS to review its policies. But despite its efforts to foster a long-term alliance between minority students and DPS officers and to provide a better process for reporting biased incidents to DPS, the breadth of issues was “too much to be addressed with the amount of people that we had,” said Christine Goding-Doty ’08, a former Co-PAIT member.

Goding-Doty said Co-PAIT’s collapse during the spring of 2007 may limit efforts to prevent racial profiling and further improve police accountability.

“After Co-PAIT ended, the spaces to voice whether (racial profiling) was still happening and the capacity had decreased,” she said.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted and ultimately there was a lot of opposition on a number of fronts from the University, so ultimately efforts faded out in that respect,” said Josh Teitelbaum ’08, who was active with the group.

These attempts to make DPS more accessible to students have had positive results, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president of campus life and student services.

The University took measures to make certain that there were good ways to report concerns and that officers understood proper conduct, Klawunn said.

She added that since the September 2006 incident and the formation of Co-PAIT, there have not been any similar student complaints.

“There has not been, since then, as far as I know, any incidents between students and officers where there was a question about racial profiling or race-based response,” Klawunn said.

Porter said he thinks the new policies show “a lot of good progress” regarding bias and accountability – both issues that have caused strain between minority student groups and DPS, which department records show is 83 percent white.

“It’s almost a matter of time until another student is treated poorly by DPS,” said Patel, the former Co-PAIT member and an organizer of historical reenactments of rallies for TWTP. He added that DPS officers “need to take bias-related incidents more seriously.”

What role race plays in DPS’s field stops remains an open question. DPS’s data tracking all field stops show that for 2007, about 21 percent of identified suspects were identified as either black or Asian-Pacific Islander – 40 of out 192.

From January through April 2008, 27 percent fell into either category, though only 92 people were stopped overall. More current data was unavailable.

Street said racial bias has left him with lingering physical scars and the memory of a strained relationship between minority students and DPS.

“If officers also understand that they are in a position of power – and that’s intimidating to lots of people, especially when there’s a fear that power may be used negatively against the subject,” Street said, “then they might approach people differently and speak to them in different tones and just not be so heavy-handed.”