University News

Profiling affects DPS-student relations

Unwarranted stops and fear of being stereotyped harrow some students despite dept. policies

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2014

Campus erupted with discussions about racial profiling last October when former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who implemented stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affected people of color, came to Brown.

And much of the country mobilized when Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.

But racial profiling exists beyond the media spotlight that shines on New York and, more recently, Ferguson. It frequently affects students of color on the streets of America’s college campuses, including at Brown.

Most students interviewed for this article readily espoused that the Department of Public Safety, the University’s private police force, comprises well-intentioned men and women, and many have had nothing but positive encounters with the department.

Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety Mark Porter, himself a black man who said he has been racially profiled by police, told The Herald he has personally instituted policies to guard against the practice at Brown.

But while policies are in place to protect students and some students of color go through four years on campus without a negative encounter, racial profiling still affects some on campus. Some students say they have been stopped by DPS officers without any reason besides the color of their skin. Others have never had a negative run-in with DPS but nevertheless carry the weight of that possibility, adjusting their daily behavior to avoid unwanted encounters.

And discourse on the relationship between students of color and DPS remains largely under the radar, not percolating to the point of widespread campus conversation, even in the wake of recent, highly publicized events related to race and policing.

 

‘Are you a Brown student?’

Some students of color said they feel unwelcome or treated as if they do not belong on campus, and experiences with racial profiling by DPS officers have reinforced this notion.

“Something I think about daily is that this campus was not built for people of color,” said Jo’Nella Queen Ellerbe ’15. Though people of color are now permitted to attend Brown, she added, “being allowed to be in a space is different from being welcome to be in a space, and that is something that correlates to my experiences with DPS thus far.”

When starring in a show last spring in Leeds Theatre, located at the center of campus, Queen Ellerbe was questioned on two different nights, once before rehearsal and once after, by the same officer, she said.

“What are you doing here?” the officer asked in a way that made her feel uncomfortable and disrespected, she recalled. The officer did not explain why he was stopping her.

“Being perceived as suspicious” on Brown’s campus has stuck with Queen Ellerbe, who said the officer “assumed that I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Several students of color said it is not uncommon to encounter an officer who doubts whether they go to Brown — a suspicion that manifests most frequently in officers asking students to produce University identification. Students of color dressed in sweatpants or hoodies are particularly susceptible to such inquiries, several said.

“It’s just a whole different ballgame coming into this university not looking a certain way and being a black man,” said Ahmed Elsayed ’16, adding that he has been asked, “Are you a Brown student?” numerous times by DPS officers.

In summer 2013, Elsayed was walking back from a library late at night with another black male student. While walking, he and his friend noticed that officers in a DPS car were driving alongside them at a walking pace and turning corners when they turned, he said.

“They wanted to make it known: ‘We’re watching you,’” Elsayed said.

Elsayed noted that the officers followed him despite the fact that he had a book bag on him, a detail that figures into the everyday considerations of some students of color on campus.

“Having a backpack on, you look a million times less likely to be tagged as a crook or a criminal,” said Corbin Booker ’15. He also refrains from putting his hood up when wearing a sweatshirt because doing so “sets off a trigger and a stereotype for police officers,” he added.

Of course, cognizance that dressing a certain way may increase the chances of an encounter with police is not just a result of students’ experiences with DPS, several sources said. Many people of color are conditioned to take such precautions from experiences before their time at Brown.

 

DPS efforts

DPS strives to be better than the average police department in making the people it serves feel safe and comfortable, Porter said, adding that he is deeply concerned that some students feel it falls short of that mark.

Porter said he wants to hear from students who “feel like they don’t belong” due to racial profiling.

“This is the community’s public safety department,” he said.

Though Porter does not deny the veracity of any student’s claims, he said he has not received a level of complaints that indicates racial profiling on campus is “widespread or pervasive.”

Porter, who joined Brown DPS as chief of police in April 2005, has implemented policies that require officers to report the circumstances of each stop they make and allow students to file a complaint about mistreatment by officers online, he said.

These policies put racial profiling “front and center,” Porter said at a meeting last Tuesday between DPS officers and students organized by DPS and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People campus chapter.

Armani Madison ’16, president of the Brown NAACP chapter, voiced his approval of the rule that all officers must report the conditions of each stop they make, adding that it may “make them think about who they’re stopping and why.”

Many students of color said they have never been put in a situation where they would need to file a report with DPS, only ever having had positive interactions with campus police.

“My interactions with DPS personally have come to make me a little bit more comfortable with the fact that we have a private police force on this campus,” Madison said.

Through interview questions, psychological exams and background checks, DPS also aims to hire officers who will treat all members of the community equally, Porter told The Herald.

Ten of the 15 officers hired in the past four years have been people of color, he added.

After joining the force, DPS officers receive diversity awareness training, Porter said, noting that the department brought in an expert on racial profiling in the spring to better educate officers on racial issues.

 

Local impact

Though many students of color either have directly confronted racial profiling on campus or regularly make choices to avoid it, other students may not be aware that the problem they discuss as a phenomenon in New York and Ferguson also affects their peers on campus.

When reading material or watching videos regarding racial profiling in class, Queen Ellerbe’s classmates have expressed surprise that the issue affects people in Providence, she said.

“I don’t understand how someone could be living here for four years and not realize that,” Queen Ellerbe said. “Just because we’re at Brown doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen. It doesn’t mean that all people of color feel safe on this campus.”

“This is supposed to be a very liberal place, but at the end of the day, these issues exist,” Elsayed said.

Several students said it is incumbent on DPS officers to recognize that a problem exists and work to resolve it.

“A fair portion of the population here does not feel comfortable in their presence,” said Hassani Scott ’17. “If DPS really took that into account, then they could be a lot more effective.”

 

Transparency and visibility

In confronting racial profiling or other public safety-related issues on campus, students should report any troubling incidents they encounter, Porter said. But he added that while the department often gets student-written reports about suspicious activity, it rarely receives anything concerning officers mistreating or racially profiling them.

DPS not only has policies allowing students to report officers’ wrongdoing but also has established relationships with many other members of the University community, including administrators and faculty members, that should facilitate communication between distressed students and DPS leadership, Porter said.

But many students are unaware of the policies the department has installed to support them, something both students and Porter acknowledged.

“All of the communication that I’ve heard about … regarding DPS has had to do with reporting incidents as it relates to what others are doing,” Madison said. “I’ve never heard DPS mention what we can do if we felt there was misbehavior by police.”

In addition to greater transparency, increased officer visibility in the community may also help improve relations between DPS officers and students of color, Queen Ellerbe said.

Though some officers’ efforts to involve themselves in the community have been helpful, she added, “there needs to be a greater effort to mandate that DPS officers engage with various communities, especially communities of color.”

Though DPS makes concerted efforts to meet students, it is difficult to reach “all the bases,” Porter said.

Porter said he may start sending out information about the online complaint process in a safety bulletin DPS regularly releases.

  • Lloyd Garrity

    DPS people are not thoughtful. They are not knowledgeable. They are led by deans of Brown University, who themselves are not thoughtful and not knowledgeable.

  • Tom Bale ’63

    This article should be read together with Friday’s BDH article, Exhibit spotlights micro-interactions under Arts and Culture along with the comments. I would hope these articles might spark a joint forum sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

    • Angelica Grimke

      Cop hit man. Another man says “let’s start a discussion.” Wrong. The right thing is to prosecute the cop and destroy his career. Another case. Someone assaulted man. Cop can do something but does not. We gonna “start a discussion” too? Wrong too. The right thing is to prosecute the cop and destroy his career. Better yet, prosecute the dean(s) to whom these cops report, and destroy their careers.

  • also

    Huh?

    “Something I think about daily is that this campus was not built for people of color,” said Jo’Nella Queen Ellerbe ’15. Though people of color are now permitted to attend Brown, she added, “being allowed to be in a space is different from being welcome to be in a space, and that is something that correlates to my experiences with DPS thus far.”

    People of color are “now permitted to attend Brown”? Are you kidding me ? My freshman roommate — a person of color — was doing multiplication and division at Brown, with a tutor, and entered on a full scholarship…! “permitted to attend Brown”? People of color are practically dragged into Brown against their will via affirmative action since the 70’s. And every one takes the place of someone who was *not* permitted to attend Brown simply because she was *not* someone “of color”. They never even had the chance to feel unwelcome, because their race eliminated them from the start.

    The campus is “not built for people of color”… because JoNella doesn’t feel welcome ? Well, if you live with a race-based chip on your shoulder the size of the science library, yep, I think it must be hard to feel welcome. How do you even drag yourself through the day?

    Why are articles like this one not evaluated up front with an absurdity check ? Is the BDH that far out there that they seriously have nothing better than to print Queen Ellerbe’s whining about the DPS? Hey, Jo’Nella, if I read this correctly, you are a senior. Why the heck, if you are so persecuted and unwelcome at Brown, have you stuck around for 3+ years? Why do you place any value on a Brown degree? Why are you sticking it out for another year just to get that diploma ?

    Is Brown investing in you ? Are you getting financial assistance from the many donor alums that created the endowment ? Be honest, does even that make you feel unwelcome ?

    When you step up to get your degree next June, will you think to say “thank you” to Brown, and take the risk that someone will retort with the dreaded “your welcome”?

    • Shane Grannum ’15

      This comment is exactly why students of color do not entirely feel comfortable on this campus, even in the year 2014.

      Because folks like yourself refuse to step back from the situation and understand that even in 2014, your idea of America and your idea of Brown University as a white person may be totally different from that of a student of color. Your decision to mock and degrade Jo’Nella for her honest statements is reflective of the derision that many students of color face on a daily basis here at Brown.

      How can someone like Jo’Nella and myself feel welcome at this campus when we are routinely treated as “affirmative action” students? It took you not even a paragraph and a half to mention affirmative action. It’s not even relevant to this article. It has absolutely no bearing here. And yet, you felt the need to mention it. As do plenty of students here at Brown on a regular basis. They attend an Ivy League institution with an 8% acceptance rate–something thousands of kids across the country dream of–and yet they feel the need to play victims due to the so-called ‘ills’ of affirmative action?

      It’s that kind of rhetoric that students of color at Brown, and most top universities across the country, have to deal with on a regular basis. An unwillingness for most of the white student body to see students of color as we are: highly gifted and talented students with a passion and intellect for education. Instead, they see us as affirmative action candidates. You yourself mentioned affirmative action. You brought it up. So before you suggest I am simply imagining things, think back to yourself why you even felt it relevant to mention “affirmative action” in the first place.

      Racial profiling is not something white students at Brown face. Nor is it something that most of the student body will face–even those of color. But to discount the experiences of those who feel that way is to shame and deride others. To suggest that students of color are simply ‘making up’ or ‘imagining’ situations, when the vast majority of DPS personnel they deal with are white males and females, is preposterous. It reeks of narrow-mindedness and a lack of empathy. It is the very antithesis of a Brown education.

      Jo’Nella and other students of color here, including myself, do not live with a “race-based chip on our shoulders.” We live in the reality that is the United States, where students of color at top universities are still viewed as ‘the other,’ still viewed as the inferior, still viewed in large part as special anomalies because we are grossly underrepresented both on this campus and in educational institutions across this country. It is not a good feeling. It can be painful and it can hurt sometimes. But we are stronger because of it.

      I am proud of my Brown education, as I’m sure Jo’Nella is. I am proud of the things I’ve done here and the successes I’ve had. I have been humbled by the challenges and difficulties I have faced. Don’t you dare question Jo’Nella’s motives, nor any student of color’s, simply because you lack the empathy to understand and appreciate others’ feelings–even if you yourself cannot see them, or choose not to see them.

      You claim not to know of a ‘problem’ that exists at Brown, because you are the problem. Shame on you for your mockery of a student who is simply expressing her opinion. And shame on you for being so narrow-minded and childish.

      • also

        I disagree completely. Check with Admissions. Not a single person of [the right] color at Brown is considered without regard to “diversity” goals; i.e. race, and gender. So okay, you clearly favor affirmative action, whereas I think it lowers standards [let’s assume these exist for the moment] on the altar of using race to exclude Asians and Caucasians. I value achievement over social engineering. You value race-based policy, I think that’s divisive and duh, racist. You think it’s an effective policy for restitution of ills from the past, I think it weakens the ethic of achievement and casts suspicion forever on the *true* achievements of every person of color. Do you wonder why, as you say, Brown students bring up affirmative action all the time…?

        You say certain persons of color are “grossly underrepresented”…? Huh? What’s the metric here? What’s the correct %? And is that now your highest mission at Brown, to represent your “color”? your “gender” ? That’s what Brown has been reduced to? If that’s the card you want to play, that’s the hand you’ll be known for. No surprise. And you wonder why society after Brown lacks trust in professionals who came through a system like this? Trust me, it doesn’t strengthen any community to have certain segments walking on eggshells for four years so as not to offend the prevailing values you prefer. And the world has somehow figured out who’s held to higher, and who’s held to lower, standards. Unfortunately for the US, the rest of the world doesn’t subscribe to affirmative action, and technology is running circles around this policy in determining who gets hired… Brown (and US universities in general) acts as if this isn’t true. Big uh-oh on the way…

        But more so, you are proving my point about intellectual honesty and intimidation at Brown today — that to even raise the debate on affirmative action, and in Jo’Nella’s case, to even challenge the hypocrisy of those who get special admission advantages and then whine for four years that Brown as an institution is “unwelcoming” … well, that merits calling me a racist, narrow-minded, lacking empathy, childish, shameful, and so on. If there’s anyone who should feel racially profiled and unwelcome in this discussion, it’s me. And if I *were* on the campus at Brown today, that’s exactly how I would feel. I’m the one vilified for lacking color; forget that I came from family of nine, with $14k annual family income at the time, and no college background in my family. I’m just another “colorless privileged” alum unable to see the problem, eh? But clearly, you are well-practiced at this, and I’m sure you’d happily shout me down if I spoke these views publicly in Sayles Hall.

        The truth is, we both see a problem at Brown, but we see a completely different one. I hope many many many alums will read our exchange. You are doing everyone in the Brown community a service by showing just what the prevailing state of dialogue on campus really is. Everyone can make their own judgments.

        Meanwhile, while we debate whether Brown students of color are really just living in another version of Ferguson, another 50 million kids from very very poor conditions in China finished another chapter of math. They will find a way to make this phase of US policy look like such folly. Bummer for all of us, and especially our children.