Hands Up: Black students denounce over-policing in Ann Arbor

An Ann Arbor police office stands in front of students during the walkout in November.

An Ann Arbor police office stands in front of students during the walkout in November.
Haley McLaughlin/Daily

 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 1:17am

University of Michigan student Dyshon Toxey doesn’t smile much anymore. 

An LSA senior, Toxey is finishing his degree in cognitive science and mathematics, and is involved in a number of development programs for fellow first-generation students. Toxey is Black, and said he often took pride in his perfectly straight, groomed set of teeth to build connections in Black circles and beyond — he’s known as a community mentor with an easygoing demeanor and an even easier smile. 

That is, he was until last April, when Toxey was detained, body slammed and handcuffed outside Hill Auditorium for alleged disorderly conduct at the SpringFest concert headlined by Migos.

Toxey recounted event staff asking him and his friends — all Black students — to fill in the front rows of the concert, then being asked by security guards to leave shortly thereafter. When a white Ann Arbor police officer attempted to grab ahold of him, Toxey, who admits he was intoxicated, said he panicked.  

“I ran,” he said. “There was no one to protect me, no one was videotaping. I really was not trying to get into an altercation.”

When Toxey came to a stop near the Panera on North University Avenue, he said the officer threw him to the ground and kneed him in the back, knocking a tooth out and spraining Toxey’s wrist in the process. Toxey said he was later transported to the University Hospital and released hours later, with stitches, crutches and a bill totaling nearly $7,000 in medical fees. The University’s Division of Public Security and Safety notes the case as closed in its crime log. Toxey, the report details, was taken to the emergency room for “treatment of injuries sustained during a fall when he was fleeing.”

Despite protests from his parents, Toxey didn’t inquire into his record; he wanted to brush the incident aside, take his final exams and return to his family and home in Harlem, New York. He said he was never notified about his charges again.

“(The cop) kept saying, ‘I told you not to run,’ ” Toxey said. “ ‘I told you not to run.’ And then I never heard anything from them again.” 

A few other Black students who were present at the concert corroborate Toxey’s account, but they agree on more than just his take on the night’s events. Toxey’s fate was not surprising to them. The Black community on campus and in Ann Arbor, many students claim, is more frequently and aggressively policed in student life than other demographics at the University. More stringent law enforcement, then, does little to close the gap between Black students’ lives outside of the classroom and mainstream perceptions of the glorified Michigan experience.

Many lament that few qualifiers can spare Black students, especially Black men. For all of LSA freshman Rashan Gary’s acclaim as a highly recruited defensive tackle on the football team, he said he witnessed similar stereotyping while interviewing an Ann Arbor Police Department officer for a class project on community relations. The cop said, if he had seen Gary, 6’5" feet tall and 287 pounds, on the street late at night without context, he’d have reason to be scared.

“He was straight up about it, that I could be dangerous or something,” Gary said.

The suspicion is then often institutionalized. As recently as two weeks ago, in a carjacking case in downtown Ann Arbor, AAPD Detective Lt. Matt Lige told MLive the suspect was described as “a light-skinned black male.” The department arrested a white 17 year old for the crime three days later.

Elizabeth James, program associate director of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, pointed to the mistaken identity case as a microcosm of larger systemic issues in local forces. The discrepancy in policing, she said, is something she’s been aware of since she began working in Ann Arbor in the early ’90s.

“What do we do with our tall men … or our darker men?” she asked. “There’s a double consciousness for Black students that’s always resting on your shoulder. Your party’s going to be shut down … even when it’s in the (Michigan) Union. You’ve got to walk more delicately, and you have to be twice as good.”  

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Design by Noah Sherbin

 

I. The Danger in Numbers

In the years since Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., police departments across the country have come under fire for both aggressive tactics and racial disparity. A New York Times study in 2015 found white representation in hundreds of police forces across the country is up to more than 30 percentage points higher than their community’s proportion of white residents.

Ann Arbor wasn’t spared from the slew of fatal police shootings. In 2014, a Black woman named Aura Rosser, who suffered from mental health issues, was killed by white AAPD officer David Ried — county prosecutors later refused to indict Ried for what officials deemed lawful self-defense. Rosser’s death sparked protests and prompted AAPD to mandate body cameras and diversity training, but the force hasn’t yet collected data on whether its demographics have shifted. As of the last Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2013, 82.8 percent of sworn AAPD officers were white, more than 10 percent higher than the percentage of Ann Arbor residents who were white.

At the University, police demographics bear striking resemblance to national trends. White officers and staff members represent 78.1 percent of DPSS, which includes University Police, Housing Security, Michigan Medicine Security and general Security Services. Only 10.7 percent of DPSS is Black, while 4.6 percent is Latino. Furthermore, the division is overwhelmingly male, with women making up just 32.8 percent of DPSS.

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II. Hands in the Air

Most students’ interactions with police at the University take place against the backdrop of parties, with the ubiquity of underage drinking and drug use. Still, Black students assert that their functions are hyper-patrolled, to the extent that every predominantly Black party gets shut down by police officers.  

AAPD Sgt. Thomas Hickey leads the department’s Community Engagement unit, and emphasized “party patrol” officers are indiscriminate in policing off-campus parties, as officers only respond to phone calls. Public Policy junior Stephen Wallace took issue, however, with the frequency of the alleged complaints, especially as many students live around other students.

“You ask them, ‘Why is our party being shut down,’ or ‘What can we have done differently,’ and it’s just like ‘Oh, people are calling,’ ” Wallace said. “I just don’t believe it’s all coincidence, I refuse to believe every time we throw a party someone just happens to call.”

Many students point to the vicious cycle of the imbalance: Black student groups simply do not leverage the institutional resources on campus to accommodate and control activities like those of older, predominantly white fraternities and sororities. Nearly every chapter affiliated with the Interfraternity Council or the Panhellenic Association has a long-standing address registered with their respective council — none of the “Divine Nine” historically Black chapters of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, on the other hand, have a long-term address on campus. Black parties hosted at off-campus locations, then, are rarely registered with the University’s Office of Greek Life.

“We cram the whole Black community into a three-room apartment,” Toxey quipped.

“Minorities don’t have enough stuff for people on campus,” agreed LSA senior Javon Shell. “It’s rare for a frat like us, or let’s say like Alpha or Que, would be in the same house two years in a row. We pretty much go house to house, and call that house our house. We don’t have big houses, we don’t have these luxuries. But yet, every time we try to have fun it gets shut down. Literally every time.”

Shell, leader of historically Black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, recalled an incident of aggression with officers at the frat’s annual Christmas in July party last summer. Shell said KAP threw the party in a white fraternity house on Hill and State Streets to account for the large crowd. After admitting over 1,000 people arrived at the venue, he said police used unnecessary force and roughness when shutting the party down.

“Christmas in July was very aggressive,” Shell said. “You could tell they didn’t know how to handle that many people — Black people specifically — and the way they handled it was so bad.”

Police from seven different districts, he added, were called to shut down the party. Though University Police spokeswoman Diane Brown told The Michigan Daily in a December interview that police from multiple jurisdictions are usually brought in on game days to account for the large amount of partying, she did not say the same happens during regular weekends or over the summer.

According to a police report detailing the party attained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the officers on the scene included the entire AAPD night shift, all available units from DPSS, at least four Michigan State Police troopers, one Chelsea sergeant and a Pittsfield Township officer. The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s department also redirected Dexter Township squad cars to assist, but canceled the order before their arrival. The report states over 500 people were in attendance and over 200 people were on the road near Hill Street.

Though Shell said no major altercations occurred, AAPD Officer James Boylan provided a written statement that he observed a large fight breaking out, then overheard radio traffic that there had been gunshots fired — though police later found no evidence of guns at the party. Nonetheless, Boylan deployed his department to issue pepper spray in areas where crowds were not dispersing. Boylan wrote he was “unsure how many people were hit with the mace.”

Shell highlighted Christmas in July as one prominent example of AAPD unnecessarily monitoring Black parties. KAP functions are usually shut down by 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., he said, and police officers enter date parties to check identification and cups, and he once finished cleaning up a party at the University Sports Coliseum only to find two squad cars still idling in the parking lot.

“Not every event is going to break into a fight,” he said. “We don’t have that established foundation that these other people do have. And we can’t (often) get venues like (the Sports Coliseum) because we’re Black.”

LSA sophomore Gracie Dunn, a member of the majority-white Zeta Tau Alpha, wrote in an email interview the Panhellenic Association party registration system ensures her contact with the police — outside high-profile daytime parties or tailgates — remains limited.

“In the year and a half I’ve been here, I haven’t been to one mixer that’s gotten shut down,” she wrote.

The Office of Greek Life declined to comment on this story.

The police scrutiny isn’t limited to the time and place the of event itself: Black students say they’re more likely to be stopped before, after and even completely outside the context of partying at all.

Wallace remembered a night of his Welcome Week in 2014, he was returning to his dorm on the Hill from a friend’s house when suddenly, a bright light stopped him in his tracks. A DPSS officer demanded Wallace put his arms up and proceeded to violently frisk him, even tugging on his insulin monitor. The officer finally stopped, and when Wallace asked if he needed to show ID, the cop refused.

“He said ‘you fit the description for a gun crime in the area, but there was no place on your body to conceal a weapon,’ ” Wallace said. “It was over the top.”

As with Toxey, DPSS dropped the issue. 

“There was no police report filed,” he said. “I called for the next couple of days … but there was no follow up; nothing really came of it. Almost like saying, ‘you can go here, but never said you can enjoy being here’ — that’s the way it feels sometimes.”

III. Good Cop, Bad Cop

With these collective experiences and memories, it’s not a stretch to understand why, as countless hashtags and protests have exposed by 2017, Black communities are reluctant to place their trust in law enforcement agencies. As Black LSA junior Priscilla Huddleston pointed out, students coming from predominantly Black communities arrive with very different outlooks on relationships with police forces.  

“I have a trust for police officers in Detroit that I don’t have here,” she said of her hometown’s police force, which was 62 percent Black as of 2013. “You can’t protect who you fear. You fear what you don’t know.”

University Police Chief Robert Neumann doesn’t shy from criticism about his force, and admits he hasn’t been in close contact with Black students on campus. Both AAPD and DPSS participated in two annual Pancakes & Policing dialogues put on by the Black Student Union and Students of Color of Rackham. DPSS drew on the feedback in part to craft its sub-plan on diversity, equity and inclusion; initiatives currently being piloted include division-wide implicit bias training, microagression workshops and a plan to recruit more diverse officers.  

“I never had a sense (race relations) were bad,” Neumann said. “I can’t tell you about a time where we’ve had a bad relationships … but like to think it’s improving. Better than average. If those questions are unresolved, I’d like to know more about that.”

Hickey, however, pushed students to consider their own stereotypes about police officers, especially for those “transitory citizens” coming from other communities. He admitted the pancake breakfast was the first significant dialogue between Black students and AAPD, but claimed the department has been practicing diversity and de-escalation training “for years.” 

Racial profiling, he insisted, is not an issue in Ann Arbor.

“What did you do that brought unfair treatment on?” he said he’d ask students. “Because an officer would lose their job over racial profiling. That hasn’t happened here. If you’re saying that because it happened in another city … it’s not going to happen here.”

Hickey pressed further, at times questioning the credibility of students’ accounts.

“When you have a student that’s underage and intoxicated, a large majority of them are mean or aggressive, but sober, they’re the nicest person and apologetic,” he said. “If you’re throwing alcohol into the mix, you’re not making good choices. If police did 100 percent of what you wanted them to do, would the problem go away?”

He agreed, though, community relations between AAPD and students in general could stand to be improved. Efforts to establish a civilian review board have stalled, as a $200,000 audit of the department is still underway.

“If students don’t reach out, we can’t get this clarified,” Hickey said. “I’ve been aware of race relations my whole life. How do you think this makes me feel? We continue to battle negative perceptions. We have to step up our game in areas other police officers don’t even touch.”

James, who was stopped years ago by an AAPD officer who couldn’t believe she worked at the University, suggested the dialogue for city officers move beyond annual breakfasts.

“I see AAPD trying — but I don’t think just one or two officers can,” she said. “When you have this many people saying the same things, it’s a systemic problem.”

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IV. Between Two Worlds

Add in the racist flyers, the threatening emails and the ever-dwindling Black student body population, and a fractious campus becomes even more divided by disproportionate policing. Whether students experience police aggression firsthand or secondhand, the result for many is arguably the same. An already alienated Black community sequesters itself even further from seemingly unwelcoming spaces.

Black students even stop themselves from seeking the outlets most students would otherwise avail themselves of. According to a self-survey by the Black Student Union, 34 percent of students feel uncomfortable approaching officers in uniform.  

“I shouldn’t have this distrust or this disdain in my heart every time I see someone in a uniform, but due to what’s going on, due to how they police our events and police us on this campus, I don’t have much of a choice in the matter in how I see the police,” Wallace said.

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Huddleston, one of the only Black members of the cheerleading team, said she’s turned heads at predominantly white parties she’s attended for being “too loud.” Shell looks back on his Black friends who pledged IFC frats, and laments their separation from the larger Black community.

James, however, related the more jarring story as proof of the toll on Black students’ mental health. As she entered a Haven Hall elevator two weeks ago with three of her Black students in DAAS — an academic space — the two white people already in the elevator appeared unsettled. No more than a minute later, they all exited, one remarking to James, “we’ll take the stairs.”

“I want to believe this place is for me, but … it does get to prey upon you,” James said. “So why not stay safe? I feel safer around other people of color.”

Many of the University’s DEI efforts hinge on successful collaboration between students of all races and ethnicities. A strategic plan that largely fails to engage with the implications of disparate law enforcement begs the question: If Black students don’t feel comfortable around white students because predominantly white institutions are not yet attuned to Black needs, who can break the cycle? How much of the burden should, or can, be placed on the students themselves?

Toxey is slower to smile in public these days, and entire cohorts of Black students subject to overpolicing aren’t far behind him.

Hickey—with the full force of AAPD’s three-person Community Engagement department behind him—wound up asking the question at the heart of the matter.

“I don’t know what it would take for them to feel trust,” he sighed.

“Is it fair to not ever trust us again?”

This article is the last installment of "Hurdles," an series of articles on institutional barriers faced by members of the campus community. Have you had an experience with law enforcement on campus you'd like to share? Contact rbasha@michigandaily.com to be included in the Daily's reporting on this issue.