After racial profiling allegations, college removes guard

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • March 27, 2014

Theodore Life Jr. said Emerson should further screen Securitas personnel before they join the college.
Theodore Life Jr. said Emerson should further screen Securitas personnel before they join the college.

A series of incidents in the Little Building left two African-American professors believing they were racially profiled and led to the removal of a Securitas officer from the college, according to Emerson College Police Department Chief Robert Smith.

Well before the March 10 implementation of Emerson’s 24/7 “Tap and Go” policy, at least four African-American professors were stopped by a Securitas employee working at the downstairs security desk on their way to a Dinner for Faculty of Color event Feb. 10. The employee asked them to tap in because she said she did not recognize them, according to Benny Ambush, senior distinguished producing director-in-residence.

The dinner was an annual event for faculty and administrators sponsored by Sylvia Spears, the vice president of diversity and inclusion. 

Ambush said he was one of the faculty members stopped at around 5 p.m. Under the previous policy, anyone entering an Emerson residence hall was required to tap in between 6:45 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Jerald Walker, chair of the writing, literature, and publishing department, who was one of the professors stopped, said he believed this was a case of racial profiling. He identified the guard as a white woman in her late twenties or early thirties.

“Three other black male faculty were stopped by this same woman, similar to how I had been stopped,” said Walker.

He said other faculty had shown their IDs, but he refused to, and continued walking to the dinner, despite the guard’s protests, and threats to call security. He shared his story when he arrived to the Beard Room, and other black male faculty members came forward with accounts of similar encounters, according to Ambush.

Walker said he informed Spears about the incident and sent a complaint to Smith. Smith assigned Lieutenant Steve Desy to begin an investigation.

“In the end, the findings and conclusions supported what [the professors] said,” said Smith.

Smith said that based on the ECPD investigation, he asked Securitas to ban the officer in question from Emerson, and informed the affected professors of this decision. He said as ECPD chief, he can choose which Securitas employees can be assigned to Emerson.

“When that security person was interviewed,” said Smith, “[she] couldn’t explain why [she] had asked particular people attending Sylvia’s dinner to tap or show ID when it wasn’t tapping hours.”

Smith said he is unsure whether or not the employee was fired from Securitas, a security services company headquartered in Stockholm that employs approximately 300,000 workers, according to the company website.

Tom Fagan, vice president of human resources and administration of Securitas’ northeast region, declined to comment on the incident.

Spears said she alerted President M. Lee Pelton and other college administrators about the incident at a president’s council meeting the morning after the dinner

Walker said the day after his encounter with the Securitas officer, he received a call from President Pelton, and a follow up call the day after that.

“President Pelton called me at home to offer his apologies for the encounter and to stress that that sort of conduct is something that is not acceptable at Emerson College, that he himself as an African-American has certainly experienced that kind of treatment, that he continues to experience it, and the last thing he will do is allow it to take place on his campus,” said Walker. 

Sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major Willie Burnley said that the race of the dismissed Securitas agent doesn’t change his opinion of the events, but that he’s pleased with the college’s response.

“If this had been a black Securitas worker, a racial bias could still have been at play,” he said.

Walker and the other professors received an email from Smith, informing them of efforts to ensure that actions like this would not happen in the future.

“Securitas Account Manager [Jeffrey] Scott and I will be meeting with Dr. Spears to discuss development of a block of training that will focus on promoting, understanding, and respect for racial and cultural differences, and assist those in attendance to acquire the skills and techniques required to avoid the racial profiling of community members and visitors to a diverse environment like Emerson,” wrote Smith. “This training will be delivered to all current, and future, Securitas personnel employed by Emerson College.”

Theodore Life Jr., distinguished director-in-residence, was also asked by the Securitas guard to tap in that night. He said he would like to see a more strict vetting process of security workers because they are often one’s first impression of the college as a visitor.

“[This incident] calls into question the training Securitas gives its personnel, and I think it calls into question the fact that Emerson should also be proactive with a second screening, in many respects, to not just take the people we’re assigned from Securitas,” said Life.

All involved professors said that they were in support of the trial 24/7 tap policy, the implementation of which had nothing to do with these allegations of racial profiling, according to Spears and Smith.

“The Emerson community is a diverse community, so security has to reflect the understanding of that,” said Life. “That’s what I think is the most disturbing, that you have an individual working in a diverse community but is not seeing the diversity and had drawn her own boundaries about who belongs.”