Misconceptions breed tension

Kelly Byer

Students’ recent clashes with police highlight a long-standing problem

Fueled by conflicting interests, college parties and previously publicized incidents, a police versus student mentality has persisted for more than 30 years, adding to community tension.

“It’s a belief that the city is not handling the students right, and the city believes the university’s ignoring the kind of misbehavior, conduct that the university should be able to control,” University Police Chief John Peach said.

Peach said he thinks the unfounded belief has persisted through the years, causing tension between the city and campus.

The two communities are different demographically and philosophically, but Peach said both want the police to serve them in a way that ensures their safety.

“What we do try to do is to be probably a little more insightful in terms of the conditions and reasons for certain activities on campus,” Peach said.

That doesn’t mean the law isn’t enforced, he said. But campus police try to empathize with student circumstances, such as finals week. They also have the discretion to direct cases to Judicial Affairs when they feel it’s necessary.

Joel Coll, senior flight technology major, said he doesn’t see campus police that often, but said seeing publicized incidents, such as the College Fest riots, paints a negative picture of the city police department.

“I think that it’s a small town, so they should do a pretty good job, but I think they’re kind of extra out for students,” he said.

Even so, Coll said he doesn’t know enough about the police to judge the severity of their actions.

“For them, they’re doing their job,” he said.

Lt. Jayme Cole of the Kent Police Department said officers can’t determine students from non-students initially – and it wouldn’t matter.

“Until I go up and talk to that person, and even after I talk to a person, unless they make the point of telling me they’re a student at Kent State University, I don’t really know or care,” Cole said. “What I do care about is the context or what brought us together.”

Cole said no matter how little time a student is at the university, he or she is considered a citizen of Kent.

“Our activities are based on behavior,” he said. “Unfortunately, most of the time it’s poor behavior that we’re looking for.”

Dominic Gatti, graduate student in cultural anthropology, said it seems police are out to end events like College Fest before they start and have a preconceived notion that students are unruly.

“There’s a mentality at work where we are irresponsible, spoiled-rotten, wild animals,” Gatti said.

Students react differently based on how they are treated, he said.

“Most of us are good kids,” Gatti said. “Treat us like it.”

Even though Kent State is often considered a party school, Gatti said the student body is laid-back and doesn’t need the policing it receives. Gatti, who used to attend Cleveland State, said the police presence at Kent State is much greater.

“There’s not the feeling or the force or that sense of oppression I think that you get here from the police presence,” he said. “The ratio’s too high, and it doesn’t make for a comfortable environment.”

Cole said student opinion of police matters, but those who claim there are biases often have their own agendas.

“Many of our officers are alumni, active alumni,” Cole said. “Any kind of an attempt to characterize police versus students is misplaced.”

Cole said it has long been a strategy to blame police for misconduct. But he said the claims often don’t hold up in court or are dropped because the person later pleads guilty.

“It’s become almost a part of the playbook even more these days that, rather than for an individual to take responsibility for their own actions, it’s a lot easier to just hurl an accusation back at the cops and hope that the situation goes away,” Cole said.

Police policy requires officers to report any use of force. Cole said the operations captain reviews those reports and determines if the force followed procedures and was appropriate.

“We take very seriously our obligations to maintain our own professional standards, regardless of whether somebody from the outside complains,” Cole said.

Scott Wilson, a media representative from the Cleveland Division of the FBI, said the office fields complaints about excessive force and gathers information about each incident.

“If there are folks that feel that a police officer used unjustified force or whatever, they have a right to contact us and make a complaint,” he said.

After an initial inquiry is conducted, Wilson said information is sent to the U.S. Department of Justice. The department then determines if further investigation is required. No past investigations involving Kent City Police were determined to need further action.

“None of these met any threshold where we would open a case,” he said.

Cole said it seems some students want special consideration.

“Just because it’s a college town, because you chose to go here, doesn’t mean that everything else is a gimme,” Cole said. “We don’t suspend our laws. We don’t suspend our morality.”

Cole said some students expect to get away with things they know they wouldn’t in their hometown.

“Breaking the law is not a rite of passage,” he said.

Contact enterprise reporter Kelly Byer at [email protected]