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 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.
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.