College & City Began Dialogue
Oberlin College students on September 30, which prompted allegations of excessive force and prejudice, has triggered an official response from the City and the College. The police, for their part, have opened an as yet incomplete internal investigation and the College and the Police Department have begun a dialogue facilitated by seasoned mediator Saul Green.
Oberlin City Police Public Information Officer and Captain of Police Clifton Barnes said that the investigation was nearly complete, but that the Department was waiting until it received a video of the arrests from Barry Epstein, the lawyer who represents two of the students. “This video could change everything,” said Barnes. “Any time there is an incident it gets reviewed, and you can see how thorough it is,” he stated.
In addition to the video, the investigation has not received other material related to the arrests. “Someone was taking pictures and was identified but decided to turn them over to the defense attorney, which is fine,” said Captain Barnes.
As a result of the investigation into the arrests, Barnes said, “We…found some training issues, at least one or two of the officers have to update their training.” Barnes added, “We’ve also expanded and done a department-wide training for diversity and that was through our Human Resources consultant…. That’s just a first in a series of sessions for the police department and all other city departments as well.”
“Even if there isn’t a problem, if there is a perception of a problem we should be dealing with that,” said Police Chief Thomas Miller.
Barnes also said he would not rule out the possibility of disciplinary action at a later time.
In addition to internal police procedures, Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov arranged for former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Saul Green to moderate discussions between representatives of the Police Department, the College and the City.
Regular participants in Green’s sessions include Police Chief Miller, Captain Barnes, City Manager Eric Norenberg, City Council President Daniel Gardner, City Council Vice President Ronald Rimbert, representatives of the Human Relations Commission, the pastor of Mt. Zion Church Reverend Kevin Dudley and several College students.
Captain Barnes said, “It’s been very constructive. I didn’t realize we had such a bad reputation in the student center. We’ve had positive review with the people we have interacted with, but nobody likes it when you close down their party.”
“It’s not accurate to call what Saul Green is doing mediation, because that implies a dispute. He’s trying to bridge a communications gap,” said Gardner. “We’re looking at ways in which our police officers might get some additional training and students and officers might meet in a less formal setting like orientation. In the next step, the police chief will provide the group with a curriculum for officer training and for the College to work on the orientation process.”
Though the beginning of the dialogue coincided with student and community responses to the student arrests, officials made it clear that it was not a direct response to the incident, which will not be discussed outright.
“We have not in our discussions talked about this case and any of the repercussions of this case in particular, but only in general terms. It’s not obvious to me that that’s what triggered it. It may be connected to something totally unrelated. I will not make that connection,” said Dean of Students Linda Gates.
Gates’ point was echoed by College senior and Student Senator Louis Grube, who is also taking part in the dialogue process. Grube told the Review, “I would say that this group was definitely not formed to solve the problem of September 30. The attempt is being made to look at the underlying issues that caused the misunderstanding at the root of that night.”
Gates also said that problems of race and racism, issues that received a great deal of student attention after the arrests, are not being directly addressed.
“That hasn’t been the main focus,” said Gates. “The focus of the conversation has been on community-building and trust-building…I think it’s implicit in the idea of community building.”
Despite these first steps, some students remain skeptical. “It’s about whether there’s initial outrage and then followthrough, where we get to an understanding or we work on new mechanisms to interact with the police and other figures in the town…or whether the initial outrage is going to be contained and put aside,” said College senior and Student Senator Colin Jones.