Michigan State University Takes Initiative In Addressing Racial Profiling On Campus
East Lansing, Mich.Bruce Benson, chief of police at Michigan State University, had heard about it on CNN. He read about it in scholarly police journals. And while attending national police conferences he heard the issue constantly analyzed and dissected. Racial profiling, he noticed over the last few years, was ballooning into a nationally recognized problem, and even became an issue in the recent presidential debates and elections. Until now, battling the problem — in which police officers stop individuals as possible criminal suspects solely because of their race or ethnic background — had drawn attention mostly in major urban areas. But minority students attending traditionally White institutions like Michigan State have long felt targeted by police because of their race, particularly when the campus is located in nearly all White suburban enclaves. Benson wanted to take action before it became a problem on Michigan State’s campus in East Lansing, and this semester he announced a “12-point” plan to combat racial profiling and improve police minority relations. National campus safety experts are calling the program the first and most comprehensive program of any college in the country designed to end racial profiling. While police officials and community leaders from the Lansing chapter of the NAACP agree that there was no major incident that triggered the creation of the plan at MSU, minority students had complained in recent years about being treated unfairly by campus police. Most recently, however, a Michigan State student stepped inside a barbershop near campus last spring hoping to get his hair trimmed. Instead he was humiliated. Four police officers rushed in behind him, surrounded him and pulled him outside. With his hands hoisted, they questioned him and searched him for weapons. As it turned out, the police had the wrong man, and the student was innocent. A nearby credit union had been robbed, and police said the student loosely fit the profile of the suspect — a Black man wearing a dark jacket. Realizing their mistake, the officers sped off in their squad cars. But the student, who received no apology, was left standing there — confused, frightened and frustrated. “You could tell by the look on his face that he was hurt by it,” says John Howard, owner of the barbershop. “It was like a slap in his face.”Students at MSU and other universities around the state say that problems like this — where misperceptions lead to police mistakes — are common. While some are more subtle and others more egregious, each incident erodes police-student relations. Among the highlights of the MSU’s 12-point program: Beginning next month, an MSU criminal justice professor will collect data for one year on all campus traffic stops to determine if racial profiling patterns exist. Video cameras will be installed on the dashboard of all MSU squad cars to record interaction between students and police at traffic stops.Three pairs of police-student partnerships will be formed to allow students to get a glimpse into an officer’s life and vice versa. Officers will attend a student’s class, the pair will go to each other’s homes for dinner, meet family and friends, and students will go on a drive-along during a police shift. Police will maintain a Web site on the Internet describing what racial profiling is and what students should expect when stopped by an officer during a traffic stop. The data obtained on traffic stops also will be posted on the Web site.The plan, which will cost MSU roughly $25,000, has drawn praise from students and community leaders who say that MSU police began addressing the issue long before the robbery mistake last spring. Geneva Smith, president of the Lansing chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says the department has “done a good job and has always been very proactive.” Smith was one of 12 campus and community leaders who helped the chief flesh out the 12-point plan. Tonya Upthegrove, president of MSU’s Black Student Alliance and the only student who served on the panel, welcomed the dialogue. Racial profiling “has never happened to me, but it has happened to a lot of my friends,” she says. “It happens more to guys than to women.” In Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, students echoed similar concerns. “There is a hostile presence sometimes among police at Black parties and social events,” says U-M’s Raquel Frye, a junior studying psychology. “More forums to discuss the issue would help the police hear opinions and make some people aware of it . . . some people don’t think racial profiling exists.” U-M police spokesperson Diane Brown says that while evidence does not suggest there is a problem to merit a plan as comprehensive as the one at MSU, U-M police receive ongoing diversity training to address perceptions that might lead to poor policing. At Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., police Lt. Mel Gilroy says police-student contact is lessened because “our students tend to be older — the average age is about 27,” he says. “Most live off campus and they go home for the weekends.” Of OU’s 14,000 students, only about 1,300 live in residence halls.
Singled Out?On some campuses, the problem could be more acute than others, “because the fewer African American and Latinos on campus, the greater the likelihood of racial profiling occurring,” says Michael Steinberg, an attorney with the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. When their numbers are few, minorities “start to feel more singled out because of race; on some campuses, if there are two loud parties on the same street, the campus police are more likely to break up the African American one.”But experts note that tension and distrust sometimes start with the student, not the police. Fear or suspicion of police often is imbedded in minority students based on past experiences, says Dr. Gregg Barak, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and an expert on police-minority relations. He says students who arrive on college campuses from cities where police have sullied reputations might bring that “bad cop” stereotype to campus. When a minority student gets stopped, regardless of whether the officer is White or Black, “there could be a lot of negative images and perceptions going off in the student’s mind,” Barak says.Actors Blair Underwood and Wesley Snipes and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer are among prominent Black men who say they have been pulled over, detained and questioned by police solely because they were “driving while Black.”Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, says that long before he became nationally known, he was regularly stopped, searched for drugs or weapons and then let go by Los Angeles Police Department officers. Darden says it happened at least 10 times over a period of years, even though he was a prosecutor working in the same courtroom that many of the officers testified as witnesses. Back at MSU, “I’m realistic in our approach — we are not going to solve racism in America with our 12-point plan,” police chief Benson says. “But around the country there’s bad policing, and we see examples of it all the time. All that does is build more distrust elsewhere and on our campus.”Until now, the issue hasn’t come under scrutiny at universities, largely because “college campuses are usually perceived as less problematic,” Barak says, adding that MSU should be commended for taking the lead on the issue. “I suspect that there will be a number of campuses — large mega-institutions of 25,000 or more — that will likely follow their lead.”Ken Cauble, chief of police at the University of Nebraska and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, says MSU’s 12-point plan is the most comprehensive he has seen on any campus nationwide. “I would say that for other campuses this would be a program really worth looking into,” he says. “The key with this is to get the department to buy into it, and the campus community to buy into it, and it seems like Michigan State has worked hard to do both.”
A National ProblemAlthough statistics for racial profiling on college campuses are scarce, the issue has gained national attention in recent years, and several studies have been done in isolated states. In Maryland, a 1999 study found that although Blacks represented only 14 percent of drivers on certain highways, they made up 72 percent of those pulled over. A San Diego study earlier this year found that Hispanics comprise 20 percent of the city’s driving-age population, and Blacks make up only 8 percent. But when it came to traffic stops, 29 percent of Hispanics and 12 percent of Blacks were targeted. Also, Hispanics made up half of all drivers whose cars or occupants were searched after a traffic stop, according to the study. Last spring, MSU police did eventually arrest a suspect in the credit union robbery. But Benson says his staff learned a key lesson from the mistake they made in the barbershop. “It hadn’t occurred to us if you embarrass someone, you’ve got to do things to make it right,” Benson says. “The cops all leave the barbershop but then everybody in there is looking at that young man saying, ‘What did you do?’ That thoroughly embarrassed the young man in front of a lot of people.” Benson says some of the 12-point plan’s diversity training will involve developing ways to handle such situations better. The crux of the plan, he says, is getting to know students on campus well — long before a crisis situation arises. Says Benson, “I can say that we are definitely building some good relationships here.”
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