Public Safety videotaped students on March 29 during an action at the Dining Hall.
Photo by Melanie Bencosme
n recent months, on-campus student protesters have been accompanied during actions by Public Safety officers carrying video cameras.
Two such instances included the protest against tuition hikes that took place on Nov. 17 in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the most recent incident, on March 29, during an action called “Hijabs and Hoodies for Shaima and Trayvon.” During both of these instances, one to three security officers followed students – on foot and in public safety cars – and recorded the entirety of the protests from various angles.
Students and faculty members who questioned the surveillance expressed themselves to the president’s office through a letter. The letter questioned the act of recording student protesters and said they had the right to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Students and Professional Staff Congress union members were then invited to a meeting with Vice President Katharine Cobb and General Counsel to the President Meryl Kaynard. The students were asked to present evidence that these actions were indeed taking place on campus by Public Safety. Two professors, a librarian and 10 students came bearing testimonies, photographs and footage of being videotaped while protesting as well as being intimidated by campus security on QC grounds.
Students and professors both argued that security on campus is becoming an increasingly repressive force.
“I think there has been this push to criminalize youth of color. There has been this recent push to control the populace to limit rebellion – stopping them from speaking out against injustice,” said AJ Venkat, 23, a QC senior who also attended the meeting.
The actions of Public Safety officers were then defended by the two administrators who said that these videotapes served as evidence to retain a factual record of instances taking place in case of a lawsuit and also a deterrence for violence that could take place in protests.
A Freedom Of Information Law request filed by The Knight News in March about the details of what happens to the footage after it is gathered remains unanswered. The surveillance is authorized by the director of Public Safety or his assistant. The criteria to allow surveillance is if the action or protest taking place can be a threat to public safety, based on the type of event, if there are controversial participants involved and if there is any communication of threat.
These recordings in turn are reviewed by Public Safety supervisors and college administrators, according to Cobb.
“There have never been any incidents of violence here on campus during any protests. It is completely unnecessary for this surveillance to be taking place,” said PSC chapter chair at QC Jonathan Buchsbaum.
Protests on campus are often proctored by the Behavioral Intervention Team, a department of Student Affairs chaired by Executive Director of Student Development Jennifer Jarvis. The five-person team assesses various cases, actions and at times, individuals to address behaviors of concern that impact the college community.
This meeting also revealed to students that there are no set guidelines or written policies from the university chancellery or CUNY Safety for officers during on-campus protests and actions. Instead, only “recommended best practices,” are given.
“It was very revealing that the policy was that there was no policy,” Buchsbaum said. “That shows that they are very arbitrary of their rules. They should be publishing their rules so everyone can see what they are.”
Students also raised concerns of the role of the NYPD on campus, citing their unauthorized surveillance of Muslim students. The college administrators have denied any knowledge of the unauthorized presence of NYPD on campus grounds.
According to Vice President Joe Bertolino, the NYPD or any external law enforcement agency that is not CUNY Safety, is not allowed on campus property without the consent of Public Safety.
In an agreement entitled “Memorandum of Understanding between CUNY and NYPD” dated March 1992, in non-emergency agreements, the NYPD cannot enter campus without first informing Public Safety. However, in emergencies, NYPD can come on campus to investigate a reported emergency but must inform an administrator or Public Safety officer of their presence as soon as possible. The document defines an emergency as “the ordinary meaning of those terms, but shall also include any circumstances in which there is the potential for injury to any person or substantial damage to or loss of property.”
At the meeting, students decided that the best way to deal with the lack of guidelines was to write them themselves. A list is being drafted outlining guidelines Public Safety officers should follow while on campus. Some demands include full transparency of training tactics and student attendance at meetings, civilian independent oversight and a no-weapons policy.
The current role of public safety on campus includes responding to emergencies, patrolling the college and dealing with parking regulations around the campus.
No public safety officer or official is allowed to speak to the press according to guidelines from CUNY safety.
QC public safety reports to CUNY Safety which governs all 23 college campuses in the CUNY system where students believe suppression has been a historical trademark.
As reported in an article by The Indypendent, students at Brooklyn College were confronted by campus security after they staged a silent peaceful sit-in outside the president’s office demanding to speak to him. Students were then “dragged apart from each other and proceeded to use excessive force: pushing, shoving, and deliberately suffocating students so as to disperse them.”
“Campus security should not be intimidating students,” Bertolino said. “They should tell people here are the rules and the possible outcomes are x,y,z. Acting inappropriately and intimidating is not OK.”