Claims of racial profiling by USC campus security fuel demand for investigations

Najee Ali speaks outside the Galen Center. | Celeste Alvarez (Neon Tommy)

Najee Ali speaks outside the Galen Center. | Celeste Alvarez (Neon Tommy)

By Celeste Alvarez

Civil rights organization National Action Network held a press conference Tuesday on the recent allegations of racial profiling by members of USC’s Department of Public Safety.

Speaking in front of the Galen Center, Political Director Najee Ali of NAN demanded an independent state and federal investigation be conducted regarding racial profiling by USC Department of Public Safety officers following claims made by actress Taraji P. Henson.

“We take those claims very seriously and we know for a fact that several students have claimed they have been racially profiled by USC in recent years,” Ali said.

Henson told Uptown Magazine that she had initially planned for her 20-year-old son, Marcel Henson to transfer to USC, however decided against it after he allegedly experienced racial profiling by police officers on the campus.

The “Empire” star told the magazine police stopped him “for having his hands in his pockets.”

“I’m not paying $50K so I can’t sleep at night wondering is this the night my son is getting racially profiled on campus,” Henson told the magazine. She ultimately decided to have him attend her alma mater, Howard University, a historically Black institution.

In response, DPS Chief John Thomas released a statement Monday evening stating he was “deeply disturbed to read news reports about a prospective student who felt profiled on or near campus because of his race.”

He has also stated that he would like to meet with Henson and her son to “look into this matter further and better understand who was involved and what took place.”

Thomas also noted that as “someone who personally experienced racial profiling as a teenager, I have a stake in learning more about this incident and doing all I can to reach a just resolution.”

It is unclear which police department was involved in the incident with Marcel, but Thomas did note that “[a]ny allegation of bias or unequal treatment by university officers would trigger an investigation that [he] would supervise along with the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity.”

Ali expressed concern that any investigation conducted by USC officials will be biased when it comes to addressing issues of racial profiling conducted by DPS. He also noted that although NAN stands by Henson they have not been in contact with her directly.

He further discusses his own experience with racial profiling at USC in the video below.

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USC student tells of racial profiling in South LA

Tobi Oduguwa looks out onto the street where he said he experienced racial profiling in the area near USC. | Lensa Bogale

Tobi Oduguwa looks out onto the street where he said he experienced racial profiling in the area near USC. | Lensa Bogale

Tobi Oduguwa is a University of Southern California junior double-majoring in computer science and physics. But as a black man two inches over six-feet-tall, he gets asked what position he plays on basketball team more often than his major. The question comes up so often that he has given himself his own, unofficial basketball number.

“If you hear about a point-guard named number six, that’s actually me,” said Oduguwa.

But the assumptions aren’t always so harmless.

Oduguwa learned the hard way when officers from the USC Department of Public Safety stopped him one night outside of his apartment and, without explanation, asked to see his ID.

After being question, Oduguwa realized that he was suspected of choking a young woman in the building across from his own. It wasn’t until a friend vouched for Oduguwa that he was finally released. [Read more…]

Deep-seated problems at USC surface during campus forum

Standing shoulder to shoulder, looking for answers, they were not going to let anyone pass. A dozen deep and three times as wide, they stared down those on the opposing side. The seated audience separated them, but the stares from the seats were just intense. LAPD_DPSPanel

Eight stared back. It was hot. Not just from the lack of air conditioning. Hundreds of heated bodies crammed the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom. Hundreds more hoping to be let in.

A movement that began on social media showed its strength Tuesday night, May 7, during a forum about the police response to an off-campus party early Saturday morning near the University of Southern California campus. Those at the party were predominately black USC students and many were there to celebrate their upcoming graduation, party host Nate Howard said. Students are wondering why Howard’s party was shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department and why another, with mostly white students, just across the street was treated differently. The LAPD, city and university officials and black student leaders came together for the discussion and took comments from an animated crowd.

“What actions were taken to ensure student safety?” One party attendee asked. “Was it the handcuffs? Was it the intimidation?”

“You shouldn’t be upset because you were profiled incorrectly,” a recent USC graduate said. “You should be upset because you were profiled period.”

Nearly 80 LAPD officers in riot gear, at least one carrying a rifle, with a police helicopter in the sky responded to what started as a noise complaint early Saturday morning, according to videos and police reports. The first responding officer to the house near the intersection of 23rd and Hoover Street tried shutting the party down but felt threatened and called for help. Police throughout the city heard the call for help and car after car arrived at the scene. Officers from USC’s Department of Public Safety usually respond first to noise complaints in the surrounding community, but that night the call went straight to LAPD.

“In a perfect world, it would have been nice to get DPS there to handle it, but that’s not the way it happened,” Bob Green, LAPD Deputy Chief of Operations-South Bureau said in an interview.

DPS did arrive on the scene eventually. There is no indication that in the approximately hour-and-a-half between the original call to LAPD and the time they were able to respond around 2 a.m. that any communication with DPS was made.

The party across the street was just as loud and had about as many people as Howard’s party, according to attendees. Witnesses said Howard’s party was told to shut down first. Police then told the other party to turn off their music and stay inside, which they did. The situation outside Howard’s graduation party escalated.

Pictures show students holding hands, protesting against the actions of the police. Attendees said officers were disrespectful and overly aggressive. Police said some students were trying to intimidate officers, including circling an officer making an arrest. Video and audio from LAPD have not been released. Six individuals from Howard’s party were ultimately arrested and charged – four with failure to disperse and two for interfering with an officer’s investigation.

Partygoer Sarah Bowie Tither-Kaplan from across the street confronts the panel with her account of what happened.

Partygoer Sarah Bowie Tither-Kaplan from across the street confronts the panel with her account of what happened.

“These students were not treated with respect,” Sarah Tither-Kaplan, an attendee of the party across the street, said at the forum. “My house was treated with respect. The only difference between the two parties was that racial component and if you’re going to deny that then I’m sorry, I’m just not going to stand for it.”

DPS Chief John Thomas was out of state that weekend. After watching video of what happened, he said he was “very disappointed” by what he saw from his officers. He said he expects DPS officers to be proactive and intervene on behalf of students when police officers confront them. Since becoming chief at the beginning of the semester, people have questioned Thomas’ decision to give his personal phone number to students. But that night students were the main way he stayed updated as DPS and LAPD supervisors dealt with the fluid situation.

“The first call I got wasn’t from DPS,” Thomas said in an interview. “It wasn’t from LAPD. It was a student at the scene who said ‘Chief Thomas, get out here. This is chaos…’ And it’s very disturbing to me to see that same student handcuffed lying on her stomach. She was talking to me and I’m thinking to myself ‘How did this happen?’”

Students and a parent at the forum asked how LAPD and DPS could be so out of sync when the organization’s senior administrators boast about a great mutual relationship. Just last spring USC President C.L. Max Nikias announced with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck that the university would be spending at least $600,000 to hire four on-campus LAPD officers. More recently this semester students have complained about LAPD officers giving out tickets for bicycle infractions when previously they had not. Many students felt the bike tickets were unnecessary and unfairly targeted USC students. Panelists suggested incidents like last Saturday’s could be prevented if law enforcement responders understood the dynamics of college life at USC.

“I think a lot of that had to do with just the posturing of position and the way the police showed up,” Thomas said. “Our students are not used to that. And I don’t want them to get used to that.”

For many in the ballroom, LAPD’s reaction was an obvious case of racial profiling and excessive force. In an opening statement at the forum, LAPD Captain Paul Snell said he did not believe at that point the police reaction Saturday morning was race-based. When Commander Bill Scott of LAPD’s South Bureau asked the audience who thought the incident was based on race, nearly every hand raised. Several speakers from the crowd compared last Saturday’s incident to the 1992 LA Riots, which were sparked after a jury acquitted one Latino and three white LAPD officers accused in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

In 1992, the USC campus was almost completely untouched by the rioting. According to the incoming Daily Trojan editor at the time, Mike Carlson, USC remained unscathed because of good ties with the surrounding community.

“At least talking to people in the community when I was out and about I got the impression that they saw USC as an asset, an institution that was doing things for the neighborhood, for the community and so why would they really want to destroy it or hurt it in any way,” Carlson said in an interview last year.

But Thomas, the DPS Chief and a South LA native, is not so sure those strong community relationships exist anymore. He said the forum would be a waste of time if students did not begin to make better efforts to engage their neighbors.

“Our students will go to the other side of the world to make a difference,” Thomas said. “I’m just asking that they make a difference in the neighborhoods around USC. I don’t think there’s any better investment.”

One member of the community who claimed to have lived in the area since 1984 enthusiastically supported what students are calling the “USChangeMovement,” which developed in the aftermath of last Saturday’s incident. Even so, he thought the needs of non-students living in the area were not being fairly heard.

“When you’re trying to get enough sleep so you can go to work the next day and you have some young kids making noise until 3 or 4 in the morning,” the man said at the forum. “This has to stop.”

University officials do not anticipate off-campus partying to stop anytime soon. It generally costs more money to host an event on-campus than off because of facility fees and new security measures, according to student government sources. The new security policies were in response to the shooting that occurred at the Campus Center last Halloween. The measures restrict nighttime access to campus and require additional security at all campus events.

For large events, like Springfest, the new measures can cost student organizations thousands of dollars, according to members of the Undergraduate Student Government. Dr. Michael Jackson, vice president for Student Affairs, said facilities are available for on-campus social activities, but the administration and student groups need to “figure it out” when it comes to cost concerns. The forum left Jackson hopeful more progress would be made on campus through the work of students.

“In my 18 years I don’t think I’ve seen such a passionate response to a problem besides a football victory or loss and that, in some ways, is quite beautiful,” Jackson said.

The panelists all agreed that new strategies to educate officers on the dynamics of college life at USC need to be a priority. One student suggested more programs where LAPD officers interact with students in athletic events. Thomas said this party was not much different than other parties at USC. He and several others said the way an officer first interacts with the partygoers is essential in preventing another incident like last Saturday’s from occurring.

In the meantime, the message from LAPD was they are listening.

“My daughter would’ve been at that party,” Scott, the LAPD commander, said. “We had a family event over the weekend or she would’ve been at that party. She had friends at that party. We care.”