Recently a friend and colleague of mine, while he and a female colleague were seated at a table in a lounge area discussing a paper, was accosted in the very building where he works by a campus police officer who was looking for someone who was reported to be a trespasser,.
The despatcher had told the police officer that the person being sought was a “black male, early 20s, short hair, average build, and possibly of Jamaican descent”. My colleague is a stocky, 54-year old professor of social work who has a greying beard and long dreadlocks and has been at the university for decades, But as we know, the key words that people seize on in descriptions in such situations is ‘black male’ and as a result, all black males in the vicinity come under suspicion. That this kind of profiling happens in public spaces and can lead to dangerous confrontations between police and black men has been brought into focus by the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice.
But the fact that this happens on university campuses where the communities are small and tend to know each other is less well-known. Jason Parham shares his own and other students’ experiences about the fact that even though other people can vouch for your identity, it is often not be enough to remove the cloud of suspicion that is created by simply being male and black. If you are young as well, that just makes the situation worse.
It is not an easy situation to resolve. Universities are required to inform the community about any incidents on or near campus so we get regular emails about crimes, usually of the theft of cell phones and money, though sometimes it involves sexual assaults on women. In most of the cases the descriptions of the perpetrators are of young, black males, along with other features such as height, build, clothes, and so on. So one can understand why the police zero in on certain targets.
But what happens is that ‘black male’ is the only thing in the description that seems to stick in their minds, which is what led police to question my colleague to be questioned when the description was of a young man in his early 20s with short hair and of “possible Jamaican descent” (perhaps because people heard him speak) did not fit him.
The problem is compounded by the fact that police seem to get angry when the person they question gets offended at being considered a criminal when they are engaged in perfectly innocent and innocuous activities, and this causes the situation to escalate. They should realize that innocent people can get really upset at being thought to be a criminal. I don’t know the details of the interaction of the police with my colleague but if, instead of the reported “harsh and threatening tone” the officer had reportedly adopted, he had somewhat apologetically said that he was investigating reports of a trespasser in the building who had been described to him as a black man and was thus obliged to check the identification of people, my colleague would likely have understood, just as I would have understood if reports had fingered an Asian man. It is the presumption of guilt, and the associated way of speaking, that rankles.
So rather than casting a wide dragnet, using a more fine-grained search method coupled with the police not assuming that the person they are talking to is the suspect, and being polite with them at least until there are reasonable grounds for suspicion that they have caught the person being sought, might go some way to preventing these situations escalating from simple mistakes to injury and death.