Although Thomas Hassen is a Black graduating senior, he finds himself reflecting on his first year at the University of Nevada, Reno. He called Sierra Hall home as a freshman, often walking back and forth between the residence hall, E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center and the Joe Crowley Student Union.
“I remember, within the first few months of just being there, I was stopped several times, by the University Police Services,” Hassen recalled. “They would just pull up their car next to me and ask me these bunch of random questions.”
These questions ranged from asking where Hassen lived, where he was going or where he was coming from. Hassen said he felt uncomfortable and confused about why he received these questions from UNR Police Department officers. These instances persisted through his first few months at the university.
Hassen said his most notable experience with UNRPD occurred when he and a friend, who also identified as Black, were walking home from Lombardi Recreation Center. He recalled cars driving by as he and his friend chatted after finishing a workout. A bright light shined, glowing behind the two. After having previous negative experiences with police officers, he assumed the bright light came from law enforcement.
“After a few seconds, a university police officer came out and already started walking up to us, and he already had his … hand already on his gun,” Hassen said.
The officer began questioning the two, while his hand remained on his gun, according to Hassen.
“So it didn’t feel like we had a choice, you know, we had to answer,” Hassen said. “And then at one point, he asked us for our names.”
Hassen and his friend did not want to give out their names to the officer since they felt that they were not doing anything to justify the officer’s behavior. Out of fear of escalation, they felt obligated to answer the officer’s question. After verifying the information, the officer let Hassen and his friend go. Hassen said he could not recall the officer’s name out of fear of retaliation.
“We just walked away scared,” Hassen said.“This was in my first semester at UNR, so it was a very abrupt introduction.”
Around 33 individuals are involved with the UNRPD department, including officers, administrative staff and command staff.
Currently, Hassen remains an active participant on campus. He was once a senator for the College of Liberal Arts in ASUN, a member of the Black Student Organization. He now works as the Human Rights Commissioner for the City of Reno.
“Honestly, the most unsafe I’ve ever felt on campus, as a black student, was when I was near a university police officer,” Hassen said. “I do think it is necessary to kind of re-evaluate the role of having police on campus because personally, I don’t think university police services should exist on campus.”
The Pew Research Center found in a 2019 survey that 84 percent of Black adults said, when dealing with police, Black people are generally treated less fairly than white people. In addition, PRC found around two-thirds of Black adults say they’ve been in situations where people acted as if they were suspicious of them because of their race or ethnicity.
Multiple students have reached out to the Nevada Sagebrush about their experiences with UNRPD but did not wish to go on record due to fear of retaliation.
UNRPD has faced several controversies in recent years regarding officers’ behaviors. In a public records request, the university cited 11 complaint reports between August 2018 to August 2020. The allegations ranged from inappropriate language, intimidating behavior and steroid use.
Deputy Chief of Police Eric James said he was not aware of the incident involving Hassen, but welcomed the opportunity to meet with him and learn more about what took place.
“Without any background or an opportunity to discuss the circumstances with the student about his experience, it would be hard to accurately provide a response,” James said in an email to the Nevada Sagebrush.
James said UNRPD does train in de-escalation practices.
“We use what is called the Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics or ICAT, which represents a new way of thinking about how police officers can be taught to effectively and safely defuse critical incidents by bringing together communications, critical thinking and crisis intervention,” James said in an email to the Nevada Sagebrush.
James stated the program, developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, provides first responding officers with tools, skills and options they need in the event they need to “safely” and “successfully” defuse critical situations like officer-involved shoots, armed subjects, and service involving “emotionally disturbed persons.”
“ICAT incorporates different skill sets into a unified training approach that emphasizes scenario-based exercises and lecture and case study opportunities,” James said. “We are proud to say that we were the first agency in the State of Nevada to have a lesson plan approved by the State of Nevada Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission.”
Regarding biases, James said the department uses implicit bias training in addition to taking the Implicit Association Test, developed by Harvard University.
“This would help us identify in potential biased issues an employee may demonstrate and help us identify potential training to help mitigate any future issues,” James said. “We are very proud of our Diversity Training Portfolio that we focus on every year.
Some initiatives UNRPD has focused on include: cultural awareness and diversity, Police Services’ advisory board, Police Services’ “Board of Professional Standards”, De-escalation training, anti-bias training, social justice, human trafficking and more. James also said UNRPD had involvement with Proud to be Black at UNR and worked with the Queer Student Union, Diversity Summit.
QSU announced in August 2020 on Twitter that the group will not meet with the police department on an official level.
The Queer Student Union has a history of being unwelcoming to LGBT+ BIPOC, especially Black LGBT+ members. A year and a half ago, a completely new executive board stepped in, aware of the history of the club from before we were part of it. As the current president in a very (1/7)
— UNR Queer Student Union🏳️🌈 (@qsuunr) August 21, 2020
“Our board is a majority white at this point in time, with a total of four members. We did not consult any Black club members before making this decision, which I realize was a mistake,” the post read.
In October 2020, officers were found tabling at an event called ‘Coffee with a Cop’ where participants saw Blue Lives Matter flags on the table and on the uniforms of officers present.
“[Blue Lives Matter] is a movement created by the police force as a diversion to the Black Lives Matter movement and only exists to take away from the spotlight that should be shone upon the injustices and threats to Black lives,” UNRPD Accountability Coalition said in a statement to the Nevada Sagebrush.
During the incident in October, Assistant Vice President and Chief of Police Todd Renwick told the Nevada Sagebrush how he doesn’t view the Blue Lives Matter flag as a countermovement to Black Lives Matter.
“I do not see it as Blue Lives Matter,” Renwick said. “I have been asked many times what this flag means to me,” Renwick said. I see it as a way for those in law enforcement and their families to show support for the sacrifices made every day for the safety of all.”
He said he doesn’t view it as a campaign, but a flag showing support for those in law enforcement, citing people associate red flags with firefighters and white flags with doctors and nurses.
“I’m sorry,” Renwick said. “I understand these flags make an unintended controversial statement and that was not planned and never our intention. They were a part of the contribution in support of the effort our team was making to connect with students, with faculty and with campus. We will pay closer attention to the materials and displays at our events.”
In 2017, Antonio Gutierrez, former UNRPD officer, dressed as Colin Kaepernick and wore blackface for a Halloween costume.
— 💫 just give people voting rights (@glaserface) October 29, 2017
In the same year, Kevin McReynolds, a former African American football player, and his friends were stopped by UNRPD. During the stop, Officer Adam Wilson joked about shooting McReynold if he was non-compliant.
The Nevada Sagebrush reported last year that those two officers went through training with the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Anti-Defamation League and student groups. Neither officers were fired for their behavior.
These incidents led to the creation of the UNRPD Accountability Coalition. The coalition is made up of 16 student leaders on campus. The coalition believes that campus police need to be publicly held accountable for their action.
“As a diverse group of student leaders, we are working in partnership with off-campus social justice organizations to examine the legitimacy of UNRPD and to strive to make them more accountable to the public,” they said. “We have begun by tracking police interactions with students on campus through a survey form.”
Students who wish to file a complaint with UNRPD must report it in-person at the University Police Services officer or online through www.unr.edu/police or email email@example.com. This policy has been active since 2008.
When an individual sends a complaint, the Internal Affairs Lieutenant will investigate it. After it is completed, the Board of Professional Standards—made up of students, faculty and staff—will review the complaint. This policy is currently under review for revision at Nevada System of Higher Education system legal office, according to James.
Taylor Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @taylorkendyll.