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Recent incidents prompt discussions about racial profiling


By Andrew Grottkau , Anna Ta and Amy Qin     12/20/18 10:19am

Two recent incidents involving an investigation into on-campus thefts have sparked conversations about racial profiling at Rice.

Wiess burglary

After at least one suite on the second floor of Wiess was burglarized when the door was left bolted open, Wiess residential associate Carissa Zimmerman sent an email to the college identifying two incidents in which students reported seeing an African American male in the building around the time of the theft. 

Zimmerman sent two follow up emails, identifying the first African American male mentioned in the email as the boyfriend of KC Nwadei, a Wiess sophomore, and issuing an apology. 

Nwadei said that although Zimmerman did not have bad intentions, her email was poorly thought out.

“I feel like the ‘witnesses,’ so to speak, need to know the difference between a ‘suspicious person’ and someone that they have just never met,” Nwadei said. “The entire thing just had a negative connotation and put a portion of Rice students at risk.”

Zimmerman also wrote she had heard student concerns regarding the treatment of people of color by RUPD and is open to hosting discussions with diversity facilitators about combating implicit biases.

Nwadei said she is not sure discussions would be effective.

“I feel like everyone wants to just have some sort of conversation and assume that that will fix everything and make people more aware, but I feel like people just come to those, eat the free food, and then leave when it's over, having taken nothing from it,” Nwadei said.

Student stopped by RUPD

In a separate incident, Keshawn Ivory, a Wiess College senior who is black, said an officer from the Rice University Police Department stopped him outside of the Rice Memorial Center on a Thursday night and questioned if he was a student. 

Ivory, who graduated at the end of the fall semester, said the officer flagged him down as he was exiting the RMC around 9:45 p.m. on a Thursday night after an African Student Association meeting and asked to see his student ID. 

“I was gobsmacked because it was 9:45 p.m., not even late,” Ivory said. “I am in the circle drive of the RMC, the most public space that there is on this campus. You don’t even have to be a student to be here. I was completely floored, so confused about what was going on.”

According to RUPD Chief of Police James Tate, several RUPD officers were canvassing the area at that time for three men who had fled upon being questioned by a McMurtry RA. One officer was parked in front of the RMC to watch for signs of the suspects. The officer stopped Ivory because he fit the age range, clothing, race and suspected trajectory of one of the suspects, who had been reported to be heading toward Fondren Library from McMurtry.

Ivory said he was caught off guard and forgot to ask for the officer’s name or badge. He then posted a series of Tweets detailing the event, one of which received 94 retweets and 492 likes. He said it was these Tweets that caused Rice Public Relations to take note of the incident.

Ivory said public relations put him in touch with Tate, who called him the next morning and explained that the officer who stopped Ivory was responding to a call about a black suspect wearing an orange shirt. It happened that Ivory was wearing an orange shirt. Ivory said that although he matched the description of the suspect, the officer’s lack of an explanation for stopping him was unacceptable. 

“I understand that I match the description, so it’s your job to stop and make sure that I’m not the person you’re looking for,” Ivory said. “My issue is that as soon as he saw my ID, he said thank you--according to Chief Tate he got an update on the runners he was looking for--and so he gets in his car to drive off. In that process he doesn’t offer me any kind of explanation of why I was stopped.”

According to Tate, it is generally RUPD’s practice to provide a reason when stopping a person to ask for ID. He said that in this case, the officer failed to state a reason because his interaction with Ivory was interrupted by a radio update stating that the runners had changed their trajectory and were now near the Housing and Dining building. 

“The interaction was very brief--less than a minute,” Tate said. “The moment the officer has the ID in his hands, he hears the update, and so he needs to immediately get back to the task at hand and try to apprehend these folks who were ripping off our students.”

Ivory said he was left confused and scared because in the moment, he believed he was racially profiled, though he would later learn he was not. 

“It’s a perversion of my liberties as a student, as a person, to stop me in a space that I belong in,” Ivory said. “To not offer context for that carries a slippery slope implication that an RUPD officer can accost whoever they deem a threat, and whether they want to explain or not doesn’t really matter. It’s a dangerous precedent.”

Tate encouraged Rice students to express any concerns about racial profiling to him or an RUPD supervisor. He said that he personally understood both sides in this issue, a point he reiterated from his conversation with Ivory on Friday morning. 

“As a black male, I know what it feels like to be approached by police and not quite understand why,” Tate said “But I also understand, because I am a police officer, the perspective of officers when they're out there, and they're trying to protect our community and trying to prevent crime. And that's why I'm so committed, and RUPD is committed to ensure that there is no racial profiling on this campus.” 

According to Ivory, he spoke to Tate and offered two suggestions to address the issue in the future. The first was to make sure officers are trained to explain to people why they are being stopped when they question them. The second was to post headshots of RUPD officers in the colleges both to humanize them and make sure they can be held accountable for future transgressions. Currently, the RUPD website does not have any photos of its officers. 

Tate said that RUPD does not publish photos of its officers both to allow officers doing civilian surveillance in civilian clothes to effectively do their job, and also to maintain the privacy and safety of officers in the aftermath of contentious cases such as this one.

“If a person who was not as responsible as Keshawn felt as if they'd been profiled, saw an ID online, and decided to express that [through a tweet with a photo ID], and it turns out, just like this case, that the officer did everything right, it's almost too late for that officer because he or she has now been judged in the court of public opinion,” Tate said. “And it's hard to get that back once it's out.” 

Ivory, who also met with President David Leebron regarding the incident, said he hopes his experience will prevent similar occurrences in the future. 

“I don’t want this to be billed as ‘Black student gets angry and rails against the administration,’” Ivory said. “I’m not angry at anyone. I just think this can be a learning experience for the entire campus, and that’s what I want this to be.”

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