Last Friday, Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell was stopped by Case Western Reserve University police and asked to provide identification after a student reported a suspicious man mumbling utterances at passersby, according to Cleveland.com.
Conwell believes this incident made him a target of racial profiling.
“The university president, police chief and others apologized to Councilman Conwell immediately after learning of the incident Friday,” the University said. “At shift changes that day, police supervisors began reminding officers of appropriate protocols for engaging with citizens.”
According to the dispatch recording, at 9:41 a.m., a student called the police to report a man who was “kind of weird and acting funny, like mumbling things and talking to himself,” on the corner of Bellflower Court and Ford Drive in front of the Peter B. Lewis Building. She said she was unsure as to whether or not he was “suspicious, but he was like, mumbling.”
In the recording and incident report, the caller described the man as missing several teeth and said he was wearing a tan coat and a blue hat. When asked about the man’s race later in the call, she responded that the man was black.
The dispatcher reported the description to campus police, adding that the man was harassing students. An officer arrived near the area two minutes after receiving the dispatch call.
Shortly after the officer radioed that the suspect was located, the councilman was stopped and for identification. The University said that Conwell was dressed in a tan coat and blue hat.
“The officer who stopped Councilman Conwell was responding to a telephoned report of an individual who appeared to be disoriented and approaching students,” it stated. “The colors of the councilman’s hat and jacket matched the ones that the caller had cited.”
Department protocol requires two officers to respond to all dispatch calls, so a second police car joined the first on the scene. The second car contained a supervisor and an officer in training.
Upon determining the councilman’s identity, the officers told him he was free to go.
The University released a media statement on March 14 after Conwell contacted cleveland.com and immediately issued an apology to the councilman. Additionally, it confirmed that steps will be taken to better train CWRU police officers in community policing.
“All members of the Division of Public Safety, including police and security officers, will receive training this week, and the University is exploring additional opportunities to enhance its practices,” the University said.
Police Chief Jay Hodges agreed to meet with the councilman to discuss the matter on Friday, March 16, but the conversation was rescheduled and took place on Tuesday, March 20.
The department said, “Leaders from other areas of the University have collaborated with police leadership regarding opportunities to provide additional education and training to officers.”
The incident, despite the response from CWRU, troubled many members of the campus community, including sociology student and former President of the African American Society (Afro Am) Makela Hayford, who feels strongly that the councilman incident highlighted societal racial biases.
“I am grateful that the councilman received a personal apology from President Snyder, but when this happens to one of us, it happens to all of us,” she said. “Where are the apologies for the countless other people who are not councilmembers, but everyday people who have also been stopped and ID’d by CWRU police for walking while black? That is the issue at heart here.”
Hayford called on the University and the police department to take the issue of racial profiling to a policy and procedural level.
“The police and the campus administration are inextricably linked,” she said. “We need to see that both entities are committed to racially just policies.”
Hayford is a co-founder of the #webelonghere movement, which started in 2014 and was responsible for: advocating the creation of the Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative (UDC); an African American Studies Department, and now an African American Studies minor, is set to launch; and the naming of Stephanie Tubbs Jones Hall.
After reaching out to the University and police department with her concerns, Hayford contacted students involved with the Afro Am and the Black Student Union (BSU), asking them to come and meet about the issue.
She said, “We met on Tuesday evening and had a robust discussion of this particular incident and the recurring issue of police profiling. Currently, we are working on action steps to address the situation.”
Hayford also met with Hodges to discuss how the incident reflected “the pattern of police profiling that students and members of the CWRU community have been experiencing for years.”
She said she and others look forward to continuing their efforts to make the campus community more aware and involved.
“CWRU students are abundantly aware that there are people of many races and ethnicities on campus,” she said. “What lingers unsaid is that we are on a predominantly white campus in a predominantly black neighborhood. Unfortunately, many students assume that the black people they see are out of place. Black people are feared, and considered as potential threats despite being students, professors, members of the community and in this case, a councilman.”
Hayford encouraged other students to recognize the power of mobilized activism.
She said, “We can stand up for what is right at little cost compared to many others who risk their jobs, and even their lives—as in the recent murder of activist Marielle Franco—to speak truth to power. As long as we follow the codes of conduct, we’re just like tenured professors: pretty difficult to fire. This is both a privilege and responsibility: We can be contentious, and we should be when confronting injustice.”