Campus safety sent alert with racial profiling after suspicion of dorm theft

Photograph of Copeland Hall
Leo Bernstein Newman / The Mossy Log

Campus Safety sent out an alert to the community on Nov. 25 at 12:07 a.m. after two people on campus were suspected of attempted theft. The alert included racial profiling and faced backlash from the community.

The alert said, “2 Suspicious Persons roaming Copeland Hall. Two Black Males. Person 1 wearing black hoodie, with dreadlocks. Person 2 wearing white tee shirt. Report to Campus Safety any suspicious activities.” 

The racial descriptors in this message combined with the lack of context to explain the suspicion alarmed many students and faculty. 

“It was jarring to see racial descriptors used in this alert without any context,” President Robin Holmes-Sullivan said via email. “I understand fully why members of our community found them very anxiety-producing — and I am committed to ensuring we do better in the future. We are in the process now of analyzing what went wrong and developing new policies and procedures that should help us achieve that goal.”

The Black Student Union (BSU) said in a statement the message prompted emotions such as shock, confusion, anger and sadness.

“As Black students, we do not have the privilege to hide our identity, our skin tone comes in wide shades of brown, and in a crowd of a majority White student body, being BIPOC students, we stick out, after all, we are only 2.8% of the student body (58 students self-identifying as Black),” BSU said via email. “… In our classrooms, we are not the sole representative of an entire race, we shouldn’t have to filter our speech to make our White peers feel comfortable. In our living spaces in the dorm, we do not want to be seen as criminals having our neighbors fear us as we walk-by.”

The morning after the alert was sent out, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Evette Castillo Clark and Interim Director of Campus Safety Bill Curtis sent out an email that gave more information on the incident and why the alert was sent out.

“After Campus Safety officers were alerted to two individuals in Copeland knocking on doors, testing door knobs, and entering unlocked rooms during … break,” the email said. “Campus Safety observed two individuals in a Copeland room not assigned to them, later the Portland Police arrived to speak to all present parties. No arrests were made.”

Curtis initially agreed to provide an account of the incident, but canceled the interview shortly before it was scheduled to occur due to an undisclosed emergency. Then when Director of Campus Living Ben Meoz was asked about the incident, he redirected questions to Curtis.

Many students had questions following the events as information filtered in over the course of several days after the alert was sent. Castillo Clark and Curtis sent out a followup email on Nov. 30, five days after the alert, answering questions in more detail. After receiving multiple calls from students in both Copeland Hall and Juniper Hall, Campus Safety was able to locate the people who had been reported entering rooms. There is no evidence of forced entry into any rooms, but it has been reported that multiple items were stolen from rooms. 

“It is standard Campus Safety protocol to contact Portland Police when there may be a crime in progress that poses a threat to student safety,” this email said. “Portland Police were called, arrived on campus, and interviewed witnesses, but were not able to conclusively identify any responsible parties.” 

Although protocol was followed for police contact, the alert deviated from LC’s official protocol. 

“While we have a protocol for drafting, approving, and sending LC Alerts, it was not strictly followed in this instance,” Castillo Clark and Curtis said in an email. “The result is that this particular alert had incomplete information and contained racially charged descriptors. We want to acknowledge the effects of impact versus intent, in particular the negative impact an alert of this nature can have on our BIPOC community, particularly Black and Brown men.”

This alert is only one of many constant instances of bias that affect BIPOC students.

“At this institution, there is a shared sentiment among Black students of a sense of hyper-awareness of our identities in comparison to our White peers,” BSU said. “We monitor what we say as to not to attribute to any negatively associated stereotypes associated with being Black (i.e. ghetto, ‘Angry Black Woman,’ ‘Dangerous Black Man’). As a result, we cannot focus on our education stress-free.”

Administrators stated an intention to create a new policy for LC alerts that uses a template approval process in order to “limit the use of racial or gender identifiers to situations where it is necessary to provide objective and verifiable descriptions in situations involving a significant threat.” Information is unavailable regarding what the current policy is, although an LC Bulletin email specified that the process involves review by the interim director of campus safety, the vice president for student life, or the Office of Communications. 

The emails do not provide a clear reason as to why these steps were deviated from or who chose to do so, but the speed at which emergency alerts are supposed to be sent out was alluded to as a factor. 

“We will improve the training of those who are involved in issuing emergency alerts and timely warnings, improve the training of staff involved in the Student Affairs On-Call system, and improve training regarding issues of implicit and systemic bias,” Castillo Clark and Curtis said in their email.

Although campus administration recognized the issues in the way this was handled and has intentions to improve, the incident has jarred our community and made students question the reliability of supposedly impartial alert systems.

“To the person(s) that wrote and sent that message, we hope you reflect and ask yourself, ‘Do I have racial biases and prejudices? If these people were White, would I have responded the same?’” BSU said via email. “Not only was your message hurtful but it was harmful to 50+ people in the community; it especially impacted the Black Men on this campus considering there are many who fit this ignorant ‘warning.’ Please continue to educate yourself and in 2022, there are no excuses — do better.”

Additional reporting by Venus Edlin.

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