The student-police interaction that happened on Sep. 16, 2014 when Governor Cuomo visited SUNY New Paltz has been a large topic of discussion and controversy for students and faculty since the incident happened on campus. The exact incident involved a University Police Department (UPD) officer demanding students to back away from an area they were not allowed to protest in, according to the security requests of the governor. Students inquired to know why they were being told to move back further from the Atrium. The officer did not have an answer to their completely reasonable question. Rather than apologizing for being ill-informed or calling for more information, he proceeded by threatening to pepper spray the students if they did not comply with his orders. He even held his pepper spray as if he was about to use it. The incident was reported on by The New Paltz Oracle. More details on the matter can be found there.
Understandably, students were frustrated with the lack of respect demonstrated by the officer and the breakdown in procedure that allowed the event to occur as it did. The Student Senate took it upon themselves to pass legislation regarding the issue. Several students voiced their complaints to Police Chief David Dugatkin regarding the incident.
The incident on campus drew a formal response from President Christian, which was emailed to every student on campus. While he was receptive to some of the concerns of students, especially regarding their rights to free speech, he failed to acknowledge any wrongdoing on behalf of the officer involved – which was the crux of student complaints.
In his email to the students, President Christian stated that “[I] would not second-guess the split-second decisions that an individual officer needs to make in a situation where I was not present.” This comment was made despite a videotape of the event being present and available for his viewing. This statement demonstrates no support for the students who were threatened by the pepper spray and does not condemn the actions of the officer. This statement does not assure students that this behavior by the UPD officer is out of line. There was no assurance by President Christian that he understood the action of the UPD officer as inexcusable and behavior that needed to be eliminated. On this case of injustice, President Christian chose the path of neutrality.
As lackluster as the response has been from President Christian in supporting students, UPD has been much less transparent regarding the issue. I, as the student liaison to UPD, was formally charged by Student Senate, to meet with Police Chief Dugatkin regarding the incident along with Student Senator Nadia AliRahi. Understandably, the representative body of the students wanted clarity, closure, and a plan forward on the troubling issue. I insisted upon a meeting because of the requests from Student Senate.
Despite having previously expressed an interest in communicating with students about the conduct of UPD, Police Chief Dugatkin was hesitant to meet with me directly regarding the issue- insisting that there was nothing to talk about because President Christian had already addressed the issue. His reluctance to meet with me regarding the incident is a violation of his previous commitment to have a dialogue with students about UPD. After I continued to press him to meet about the incident, Police Chief Dugatkin adhered to my request.
Nadia and I were finally able to meet with him regarding the incident Nov. 7, exactly 52 days after the incident had occurred. At one point in our discussion, Police Chief Dugatkin attempted to dismiss the conversation as not worthwhile because the incident had happened so long ago – not recognizing that the sole reason for the meeting being so late was because of his deficiencies in meeting with us sooner.
In the meeting, Nadia and me were hoping that Police Chief Dugatkin would give us some interpretation of the incident and some explanation as to what he had done in reaction to the incident. All Police Chief Dugatkin mentioned was that the issue had been addressed with the officer involved, but nothing beyond that. Police Chief Dugatkin used the statement of President Christian as an explanation for not having to answer our questions, and by extension, answering to the students. Police Chief Dugatkin has done nothing to alleviate the concerns that students have had regarding the incident and has resisted any form of communication with students other than simply allowing students to voice their concerns to him. Students have not at all been involved in the process of reform and have been given no explanation as to how reform will happen.
Police Chief Dugatkin did not believe that he was in a position of moral obligation to speak for what had happened or to give any details as to how this situation was being dealt with. Police Chief Dugatkin did not apologize for what had happened, or even acknowledge any wrongdoing on behalf of the officer. There is no indication that Police Chief Dugatkin is invested in preventing this conduct from his staff in the future.
Students have exhausted all their options in trying to communicate with UPD and the administration in trying to come to some resolution and path forward. On one hand, we have President Christian abstaining from judgment on the conduct of the officer. On the other hand, we have silence from UPD. Obviously, these responses are not satisfactory. Where does the inaction of the powerful leave us as students? I call for two changes that would help prevent similar events from happening in the future:
First, there should be a formal process or committee that includes students and has standing to address concerns about police behavior.
According to a national law enforcement journal, the question of the validity of citizen oversight is no longer an issue of dispute. They write that:
“On one side of the debate, there are those who assert that internal review and control is the only way to manage the problem of misconduct. Basically, they argue that the involvement of citizens without intimate knowledge of law enforcement procedures and legal limitations will only muddle the review process.
Yet those on the other side argue that under democratic systems of checks and balances, no one should be left to judge him- or herself. The wide-ranging powers and discretion of law enforcement officers and their vital position as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system make it imperative that members of the public have a means of redress if officers abuse their powers and seek protection from scrutiny behind the so-called blue wall of silence.
The issue of whether some form of citizen review is appropriate may have been settled from the public’s viewpoint. Three-fourths of the largest cities in the United States have established some form of citizen law enforcement review. These actions represent a de facto public finding that the civilian oversight is an appropriate response to the problem of law enforcement malpractice.”
-Police Chief – Professional Voice of Law Enforcement October, 2014
Second, police must carry cameras on them at all times- filming their behavior, and the behavior of those they confront. In this case, students happened to be around filming the incident, but student presence is not guaranteed. If cameras were not present, this incident may have gone unnoticed. Requiring UPD officers to hold cameras is one step towards accountability.
When events like this happen on campus, far too often students are left in state of confusion and disarray. We are without a clear understanding of how to move forward. Organizing and demanding action on behalf of the administration and UPD is the only way to proceed.
Massive student protests and strategically applied pressure will get the desired results. We as students must reassert our power to protect ourselves from police abuse. We need reform now. It has been made clear that those in charge will not willingly make the necessary changes.
We, as students, need to demand change. This incident demonstrates that all students are subject to injustice. Students have a choice between demanding change and consenting to our own abuse. I hope that students choose change.
Executive Vice President