Winds of change have buffeted Southwestern College and show no signs of abating. With the governing board elections of 2010 tipping the power balance to a pro-education stance, and the resignations of Superintendent Dr. Raj K. Chopra and Nick Alioto, fiscal services vice president, it is clear that no position is exempt from change and any college leader might need to justify the job they do to those who matter most: the public.
Given the inconsistent, secretive and often questionable actions the campus police have taken recently, one must ask whether campus Chief of Police Brent Chartier should continue.
In March, a campus police officer stopped a female adjunct instructor to cite her for driving while talking on a cell phone. He handcuffed and arrested her for allegedly resisting arrest. It is still not clear what crime she had committed to be handcuffed in the first place.
Rob Unger, the SCEA grievance chair who was involved in the early stages of the incident, said the woman’s story is that she was handcuffed and had her head slammed into the hood of her car. When the officer pinned her to the car he became sexually aggressive, she reported, pressing his crotch to her rear. She asked him to change positions and he pushed harder against her. She then yelled for him to stop.
“He may have taken that to be resistance,” Unger said.
She was put into the backseat of a police car until a second police officer arrived. From the instructor’s account, he adjusted her dress, which had been pushed up into a revealing position, apologized and treated her with a great deal more respect.
Chartier has not spoken about this unsettling incident and the way the instructor was treated. Instead, the police phrase being muttered by some of our men in blue is that the SWC faculty thinks it can get away with anything. One officer is said to have stated that the female instructor “deserved it.” By any standard, the issue here appears to be gender-based. Had the instructor been male, it would have never gone as far. An attitude like that is not one that belongs in the campus police department, which Chartier appears to tolerate if not openly encourage.
Though misogynistic, anti-faculty police officers work on campus, there seems to be agreement among faculty that the entire department does not act that way. In fact, many respect the extent in which the aggrieved instructor spoke highly of the second officer involved in her arrest.
This inconsistency in police behavior is unacceptable but present. Other faculty members have reported numerous occasions when police have been seen roughly disciplining students for very minor infractions. Upon being approached by faculty out of professional concern, officers demanded to know what they wanted or told them to go away and leave them alone. This often happens within moments of a second uniformed officer interceding and treating the instructor, the student and his fellow officer with respect.
Numerous professors have complained about the tactics some officers are using against students carrying skateboards. These students have been questioned and many handcuffed by the campus police for the “crime” of carrying one. Though the law only states that riding a skateboard on campus is not allowed, some officers have begun to claim that carrying one is also an infraction. There is no legal basis for that position. These are the actions of security guards at an elementary school, not those of a professional police department at a college or university.
Many of these officers demonstrate great skill in understanding the needs and challenges of a college. Yet others act with the heavy-handed tactics of cowboy police who feel they have carte blanche to act as they please. If officers are inconsistent, how will students have any idea of their rights? This is either a grave inability to understand college culture or a profound disinterest. Either suggests a problem with training and with police leadership.
“Leadership is responsible when these behaviors happen,” said Dr. Carla Kirkwood, international studies coordinator. “There’s a message that comes from leadership that gives permission for certain kinds of things to happen. The hostility toward faculty and certain things that I think comes down from leadership are unacceptable. And I will not blame the peace officers. That’s ridiculous.”
Police leadership at SWC takes the form of Chartier, who can be aloof, impetuous and disengaged. Chartier rules with an autocratic management style reminiscent of a Wild West gunslinger. A crony of the discredited Alioto, Chartier embodies many of the same beliefs, including casual misogyny, an anti-student and anti-faculty state of mind, and an open disdain for those who disagree with him. Unlike Alioto, however, Chartier is also lazy.
The first necessary step in the effort to make SWC more secure is the creation of a college-wide safety plan. Chartier refused to write the plan, even when it was pointed out to him that it is a requirement of his job description. When confronted with that fact, Chartier still refused to participate. As a result, SWC is in the process of hiring an expensive outside consultant to author the plan.
But over the past year Chartier has expressed his desire to see his officers armed with high-powered rifles – ostensibly to protect the campus in case of a shooting. Though college employees have a range of opinions about the issue, most have indicated they would be much more supportive of the rifle request if there was evidence of a campus safety plan and appropriate training for officers.
Chartier has demurred. Usually, a faculty member, staff member or administrator who simply refused to do his job would be summarily terminated, and rightfully so. In a fair world, Chartier would have the cost of the safety plan docked from his pay. With the school in such dire financial straits, his refusal to do his job is costing SWC money it does not have.
In a just world he would be fired.
Questions about police leadership began in the fall 2009 semester. Chartier allowed his police officers to be co-opted by Chopra and Alioto and serve as their bodyguards. By having his men act in such partisan fashion, he undermined their credibility. Not everyone received equal protective services.
Officers in a chain of command do as they are ordered to do. If that means protecting imperious administrators from the rest of the college, they do what they are told.
During the class cut demonstrations of October 2009, officers stood together at the administration building and calmly spoke with students and professors about budget cuts. In an admirable show of restraint, they dispersed the demonstrators after a few minutes and maintained the peace. Chartier was the notable exception. The hot-headed chief manhandled students – including teenaged girls – and stormed around in a white-hot rage.
Following this incident the governing board paid for a private investigator to interview the officers involved. The investigation reported that the officers stated that they feared for their lives and that they were worried about being attacked by the protestors. Yet the photos taken on the scene show no sign of that level of tension. It has been noted that virtually no one believes that the campus police thought or acted in that way. Instead, it appears that Chartier hung his men out to dry in an effort to curry favor with the administration and the board.
After the “riot,” Chartier sent an officer out with the personnel director to visit the homes of four of the five professors at the scene and serve them with suspension notices. Another officer came to the Sun newspaper office and asked that the newspaper turn over all the photos and video of the demonstration. (The Sun’s advisor politely refused to comply.) Later, when Alioto attempted to forcefully shut down the newspaper, Chartier’s men were used to hassle and threaten with arrest the advisor and three reporters for attempting to carry a portable computer off-campus in the line of work.
None of this happened without Chartier’s explicit consent.
Police officers on campus are, by and large, sterling examples of professional law enforcement. But there are those who are poorly trained, poorly led or both. They need a chief of police they can look up to, someone who refuses illegal orders, has the safety of the campus and all those thousands utilizing it as his first priority, and who does not refuse to do his job and force the college to foot the bill for his insubordination. This college deserves someone who expresses concern about a possible victim of police brutality and sexual assault.
At the minimum, it is the job of campus police officers to keep the peace, rattle the locks and write the tickets. It is not their job to threaten, harass or assault those who work or study here, or to act as bodyguards for administrators with delusions of grandeur. With Brent Chartier at the top, there seems to be no change coming.
It is time to make that change. It is time to have a chief of police that everyone can look up to. The students deserve it. The faculty, staff, and administrators deserve it. And most of all, the SWC police officers deserve it.