Citizen Green: Police-student relations mirror tensions in larger society

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

Law enforcement officers and students from Winston-Salem’s four colleges filed into council chambers at City Hall, almost equal in number at 4 p.m. on a recent Thursday.

Winston-Salem Police Chief Barry Rountree staked out a strategic position at the entrance to greet professional colleagues. Wake Forest University Police Chief Regina Lawson sat in the third row, smiling with a composed posture and waiting for the program to begin, while a multiracial group of Wake students lined the seats behind her.

After greetings from the chiefs, along with Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin, Winston-Salem Human Relations Director Wanda Allen-Abraha pointed to a hat box on the table in front labeled “Pandora’s box,” and instructed each person in the room to come forward and take an item. One by one, uniformed officers and students alike, they sheepishly filed past. Once they were all seated again, Allen-Abraha asked for volunteers to talk about their item and what it made them think about.

Marcel Ebron, a senior at Wake Forest University, held up a lanyard.

“This represents the brown and black bodies that sometimes get disproportionately asked for their IDs on campus,” she said. “And that kind of brought me back to why I always have the need to have an identifier with me at all times.”

The city of Winston-Salem’s human-relations commission and police department have been holding “trust talks” for about two and a half years. The city police reached out to their counterparts in campus law enforcement, and starting in the summer they began to plan the inaugural collegiate “trust talk,” which took place on Nov. 13.

After the exercise of mental association with the items randomly drawn from the “Pandora’s box,” Allen-Abraha laid out the premise for the police-student dialogue.

“It showed everyone is coming from a different perspective,” she said. “And your perspective is shaped by what? Your experiences, exactly. Your experiences sometimes can lead to stereotypes and biases. That’s why it’s important to have dialogue. That’s why it’s important to get together and exchange what these perspectives are. Because sometimes these perspectives are completely erroneous. Sometimes they’re based on something that is simply not factual. And it works both ways.”

The dynamics of public safety and equal justice on college campuses are a microcosm of the larger society. And they vary with the demographics of each campus. One student from Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university, complained that police are not vigilant enough in keeping ill-intentioned visitors off campus and are blasé about student calls for service.

At Wake Forest University, a predominantly white institution, some students of color feel singled out and harassed by campus police.

Emma Northcott, a white student at Wake, said one of the biggest issues on campus is sexual assault related to alcohol abuse, adding that the police disproportionately focus on black fraternities as opposed to their white counterparts.

An outside investigation of racial bias at the Wake Forest University Police Department concluded that it was “evident that arrests of minority students are generally in larger percentages than they are represented on campus.” But the report went on to excuse the campus police by saying, “These numbers are clearly in accord with state and national trends, and minorities appear to be arrested far less frequently at Wake Forest University than other institutions and entities.”

Two officers from Wake Forest and Forsyth Tech — somewhat skirting Northcott’s point — said in response that police are required by law to annually attend “minority sensitivity training.”

Martin, the chief prosecutor, also suggested claims of disparate treatment are unfounded, while not directly addressing the assertion. “You have to have reasonable suspicion to stop and individual and probable cause to make an arrest,” she said. “So there are checks and balances.”

Winston-Salem police Officer KD Figueroa, assigned to patrol on the north side, said after the program that both perception and reality are at play in tensions between police and citizens. She said some but not all officers are sometimes rude to citizens, emphasizing the importance of treating all people with courtesy no matter what their background.

William Ray, a senior at Wake Forest University, said addressing stereotypes and perceptions only goes so far. “When you have people in power like the police, there has to be accountability,” he said, “so there can be true safety and equality.”

At the end of the trust talk, Ebron and Northcott stood up and issued an invitation to a town hall on the campus of Wake Forest University to discuss the campus climate and police practices.

Diversity, inclusion and equal treatment are a work in progress — at Wake and across America.

Students at Wake Forest University hold a town hall meeting about campus climate, police practices and curriculum changes tonight (Wednesday) from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The event is tentatively planned for Pugh Auditorium in Benson University Center, but will relocated to Wait Chapel if a larger venue is needed. Contact Emma Northcott at [email protected] for more information.