Students mobilize after Campus Safety officer wears ‘Thin Blue Line’ mask

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Facilities management and campus safety at Occidental College, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. Campus safety has reduced their staff and adopted a rotation shift schedule. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

When an Occidental student got locked out of their dorm room Jan. 9, a Campus Safety officer appeared wearing a face mask that depicted the “Thin Blue Line” flag. The flag is controversial as a symbol of the Blue Lives Matter Movement, which is often associated with opposition to racial justice. The student shared the incident via an Instagram story post which mobilized students to insist that Occidental hold the officer responsible.

President Harry J. Elam Jr. addressed the mask incident in an email Jan. 10 to the campus community, stating that the mask was unauthorized.

“By wearing this particular mask on duty, this officer undermined the mission of Campus Safety and that of Occidental College,” Elam wrote. “The mask asserts a political sentiment that works against the ongoing efforts of the College towards unifying our campus and holding us to our promise of racial justice and equity.”

That email also said Human Resources (HR) and Director of Campus Safety Rick Tanksley are reviewing the incident. Tanksley did not respond to a request to identify the officer in question or clarify whether that officer is still employed by the college for this article.

Director of Communications Jim Traquada said via email that Occidental’s Employee Handbook sets the standards of conduct and performance that apply to all staff members and administrators.

“Reasons for discipline include failure to adhere to College policy, including attire, behavioral standards and ‘conduct that reflects poorly upon the institution … or which is inconsistent with the College’s culture, mission, [and] policies,'” Tranquada said via email, quoting from the Employee Handbook.

Tranquada said when an alleged policy violation  takes place, the college investigates the incident to make an informed assessment of what happened. He said these investigations are typically conducted by HR in partnership with the relevant supervisor. If it is determined that a violation took place, the college works to correct the employee’s behavior through disciplinary measures such as verbal counseling, written warning, suspension or termination, according to Tranquada.

Campus Safety staff regularly receive anti-bias training from Human Resources, the Student Affairs Social Justice Committee and Project SAFE, and Tranquada said anti-bias training will be enhanced in response to the mask incident.

Rory Hayes (senior) said they reposted the locked-out student’s story before the administration had responded to the campus community. Hayes added a message to the post instructing students to email Tanksley, Elam and Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs Rob Flot to demand accountability.

Hayes said that some first-year and sophomore students created an email template for contacting administration and then shared that with alumni and other students.

“I’m just pissed because this isn’t the first incident where Campus Safety has harassed Black students,” Hayes said. “I remember I was just holding my skateboard and a Campus Safety officer honked at me excessively.”

Hayes said in their personal opinion it would be problematic for the officer in question to continue working at Occidental because there is no way to separate him from his racial bias.

“I’ve had so many incidents where I just haven’t called Campus Safety. Where I, and people who I was with, just took matters into our own hands because we feared possibly being reprimanded by the institution and Campo,” Hayes said. “A white student will never understand what goes on in our heads when we have to reach out to those people.”

A follow-up email from Tanksley Jan. 14 to the campus community announced that the number of student representatives on the Campus Safety Advisory Committee (CSAC) would increase from three to four students.

Lena Sullivan (sophomore), CSAC student representative and Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) senator, said she thinks the increase to four student representatives may be, in part, due to her own efforts. Sullivan said she requested the change and ASOC President Kitty Lu (senior) also advocated for this increase.

Sullivan said she emailed all three administration members suggested by the Instagram story — Tanksley, Elam and Flot.

“Blue Lives Matter is an overtly racist and violent statement. Declaring the value of blue lives, which only exists in opposition to Black lives in this context, denies the presence of racism in policing and therefore actively denies the importance of Black life,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan said she and another student representative on the CSAC, Vân Nguyễn (junior), are interested in the idea of reducing the scope of Campus Safety’s job and learning more about other students’ opinions on the issue.

“There’s a lot of really awesome energy around Oxy students,” Sullivan said. “I was really happy that every single person I know posted that Instagram story, and I think everyone wrote emails. I would love to be able to mobilize and channel that energy. Not me individually, at all, but I hope me and the other student representatives can bring that to the CSAC and to Campus Safety through engaging people.”