Faculty of color often describe being treated as a threat on or near their campuses. A recent incident at California State University, Long Beach lays bare these tensions.
In May, a Latino professor accused a California State Police officer in Long Beach of racial profiling after he was locked in an office. The police union then asked the university to investigate Stephen Osuna, an associate professor of sociology and criminology, for allegedly making a false complaint. This week, 130 faculty members signed a letter supporting Osuna and demanding that the campus police department be held accountable.
The letter, organized by the Cal State – Long Beach teachers union, said the State University Police Association’s call for an investigation into Osuna’s case was inappropriate. “The police union’s attack on Dr. Osuna represents an unprecedented attack on a faculty member, a faculty member of color, academic freedom, and an employee’s right to file labor grievances,” the letter said.
The letter also calls for reforming the university policy that started it all: teaching protocol if the campus police can unlock the door.
On May 25, Osuna locked himself out of his office, keeping his keys and cell phone. A campus police officer who arrived at the scene said he could not open the door unless he was shown a teacher’s ID, according to policy. Osuna said he recently lost his ID. When the officer called his supervisor — referring to Osun, a tenured professor, as an employee — he was told not to open the door. So he didn’t.
The interaction was recorded at body camera footage obtained by the campus police union. “If I was a white professor, you would be fine,” Osuna said in the video after being denied entry.
In the faculty letter, five white and white professors shared stories of similar times when they were locked in offices without ID — and eventually let in by a campus police officer.
“They hide behind policies that are used arbitrarily,” Osuna said in an interview. “They’re not applying it fairly.”
But Matt Kroner, president of the university’s police union, denied that race played a role in what happened to Osuna. Croner said he could not comment on other cases where people have been allowed into campus offices without ID. In this case, he said, the officer was simply following policy.
“It’s unfortunate that politics prevented them from helping Dr. Osuna,” Kroner said. “But right after he was told he couldn’t be let in, Dr. Osuna was the one who brought race into the mainstream by calling the officer a racist.”
No ID, no help
Osuna told Chronicle that he was in his office preparing for a volunteer workshop to support students transferring from nearby Long Beach Community College to Cal State – Long Beach. He went to the bathroom, leaving the office door open.
When he returned, he said the door to the hallway leading to his office was locked, a summer protocol he was unaware of. It was almost 6pm and the workshop was about to start, he said, and he didn’t see anyone to help.
Osuna said he then called campus police from an emergency phone. “I was hesitant to call because I had previous experience with them,” he said. “But I had no choice.”
Osuna told the officer he didn’t have identification because he lost his driver’s license and campus ID while on vacation. But the officer said he could not open the door unless Osuna had ID.
As described in the faculty letter, “sometimes they don’t even ask,” Osuna said. “Why didn’t they do this for me?” Kroner said that in most of the responses included in the letter, the professors had ID in their office that they could show when they were let in.
According to Osuna, and in a video released by the police union, the officer told Osuna his supervisor told him not to answer the door, and he suggested Osuna call his dean for help. But Osuna didn’t have the dean’s number, and the phone was locked in the office.
In the video, the officer apologized to Osuna. “I think the biggest thing I would like to emphasize is our responding officer, our Asian responding officer, did nothing wrong, was completely professional throughout the entire encounter,” Croner said. Chronicle. “His Latino, who wasn’t even at the scene, couldn’t find out Dr. Osuna’s race, said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’
Osuna said he also remained calm despite his frustration. “I thought I had this event at 6. I’m going to be late. Can you do it for me tonight?” he said. “I thought I lost it, but I’m pretty calm in the video. I don’t think you would do this to me if I were white.’
After the officer left, Osuna said he remembered another teacher arriving later to help transfer students, so he waited to be let in. He was 20 minutes late for the seminar.
“This is a reality for many of us.”
Osuna said his experience echoes that of other teachers of color who say they were asked to prove that they are allowed to be in certain places.
In one of the most notable cases was Henry Louis Gates Jr arrested for breaking into his own home near Harvard University after local police officers saw the famous black scholar try to break through the door after it had been locked. The 2009 incident drew widespread condemnation, including from then-President Obama. The charges were eventually dropped.
“This is a reality for many of us,” Osuna said.
Osuna initially shared his frustration with his colleagues. He later met with Cal State Long Beach’s president, the faculty union and campus police. The president apologized, Osuna said. The police chief did not.
A university spokesperson said in a statement that the officer did not act inappropriately and followed established policy.
“However, we sincerely acknowledge that this is not how our teacher experienced this event,” the statement said. “Systemic racism and police abuse of power in this country are real, deep-seated problems. As a higher education institution, we embrace our role as a place to explore and discuss these issues and find solutions.”
On July 12, the police union sent a letter to the California State University Board of Trustees calling for an investigation into Osuna for “deliberately making a false and stigmatizing complaint of racial bias.”
“These stigmatizing allegations put the officer’s career, reputation and promotion opportunities at risk,” the letter said. “Given that the accused officer is a person of color, these false allegations of racism are even more damaging.”
Osuna tweeted in response: “This is clear intimidation and an attempt to silence me and my union.” He said it was never about an individual officer: “They were following orders. And that’s a problem.”
Croner said Chronicle that he believes Osuna is “exploiting” the current moment in history by making allegations that are “patently false.”
“You have to have a little more than your gut or your gut feeling to label someone racist,” the police union leader said.
Croner said the campus police union supports efforts to reform the open-door policy. “If the community is willing to take that risk and allow officers to assist even if they don’t have ID, then we’re all for it,” he said.
In the meantime, Osuna wants to see the changes outlined in the faculty letter: a public apology from the campus police department, reform of the open-door policy and the creation of an accountability board to oversee campus police. A community engagement group is currently in place, but Osuna believes it is ineffective because it was instituted by the campus police themselves.
“Now we demand something more transparent to hold them accountable,” he said.