Med school police accused of profiling

Exclusive: Some UT Southwestern students say minorities unfairly stopped, harassed

By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Just after 2 p.m. on a chilly Wednesday in early February, a campus police officer at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas pulled his cruiser into a student parking garage to check out two men who appeared suspicious.

Dr. Donald Arnette says a white campus police officer brandished a Taser and used a racial epithet in a February incident. He has filed a federal suit alleging racial profiling.

One of the men, a black doctoral student, walked by the patrol car and wanted to know whether there was a problem. What happened next remains in dispute. But in the confrontation that followed, the white officer brandished a Taser and allegedly used a racial epithet. The student, Donald Arnette, was arrested for failing to identify himself and taken to jail.

The news ricocheted across the campus, particularly because UT Southwestern is aggressively working to attract more minority students as well as professional staff and faculty. Soon, at least a half-dozen other minority students complained of past incidents where they felt harassed because of their race by UT Southwestern police.

Dr. Shawna Nesbitt, internal medicine professor, talks to prospective students Jose Chavez (left) and Alvin Anene. The med school wants more minorities.

Since then, the Feb. 2 altercation between the student and the police officer - and UT Southwestern's response to it - has emerged as a case study in how institutions grapple with significant cultural issues and changes arising from their efforts to increase diversity.

The Dallas Morning News examined how UT Southwestern police interact with individuals of different races, drawing on dozens of interviews and reviewing data and records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Among the findings:

  • UT Southwestern police search minorities more often than Anglos after traffic stops.
  • Minorities at the university cite occurrences where they have been singled out and targeted for identity checks while walking on campus, without any evidence of suspicious behavior. Because of concerns about the impact on their careers or that their complaints would not be satisfactorily addressed, however, they have filed few formal grievances.

Police do not routinely track pedestrian stops - a source of tension on campus.

The campus police department is overwhelmingly white and has a hard time recruiting and retaining minority officers.

"We've been very aggressive in increasing the number of minority students," said Dr. Byron Cryer, associate dean for minority student affairs. "I feel our success in our recruitment is being undermined by the actions of the police."

Making bad impression

The timing of the Feb. 2 incident couldn't have been worse for Dr. Cryer, a nationally recognized gastroenterologist, who leads the medical school's recruitment of minority students. He was making final preparations for an open house for two dozen highly recruited minority undergraduates who hadn't yet chosen a medical school.

He planned to showcase the best of UT Southwestern, world-renowned for its research facilities, four active Nobel laureates and its extensive clinical services, including affiliation with Parkland Memorial Hospital, one of the nation's largest public facilities.

Dr. Cryer, who is black, says he feels a personal responsibility for the minority students he recruits.

"I'm out there waving the banner, telling the students you need to come to Southwestern because it's a great institution," he said. "I feel very conflicted as to whether I should be as aggressive recruiting students to a situation where they might not be comfortable or possibly harassed. It's an issue I'm personally struggling with."

The incident triggered a top-to-bottom review of police and campus relations by a task force that includes faculty, students, police and administrators.

UT Southwestern Police Chief Larry Coutorie, 58, elected to take early retirement shortly after the incident. UT Southwestern officials would not comment on the chief's decision. Mr. Coutorie also declined to comment.

Dr. Arnette, 31, has filed a federal lawsuit charging UT Southwestern and its police department with racial profiling based on the Feb. 2 parking garage incident and another that took place two years earlier.

UT Southwestern officials declined to comment on his suit because the case is ongoing.

"I can't address the issues of this lawsuit or the experiences of the student engaged in the lawsuit," said Roy E. Bode, UT Southwestern's vice president for public affairs.

But, Mr. Bode said: "We will tolerate discrimination by absolutely no one. The allegations are being taken seriously and are being investigated."

Story of two extremes

Donald Arnette arrived at UT Southwestern in 1997, a low-water mark for minority recruitment in its graduate and medical schools.

Minority enrollment had dropped precipitously after the 1996 federal ruling in Hopwood vs. Texas, which banned public universities from considering race as a positive factor in admissions.

A year after Hopwood, only one black medical student was enrolled in UT Southwestern's freshman class.

With studies showing that black and Hispanic doctors were more likely to serve minority patients than their white peers, Texas health officials worried about a shortage of doctors in communities already underserved.

But as one of America's 125 medical schools, UT Southwestern faces stiff competition in recruiting underrepresented minorities, including blacks, Hispanics and American Indians.

An aggressive outreach campaign in the medical school pushed black enrollment from 21 students in 1999 to 55 in 2004 - the fastest rate of increase among the top 25 medical schools in the country, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Dr. Arnette was one of the minority students who found a place at UT Southwestern.

As a youth, he had a few minor brushes with the law, including probation for credit card fraud. But he went on to graduate from the University of North Texas with a degree in biology in 1997 and soon after took a job as a research technician at the medical center.

His boss, Dr. Melanie Cobb, Dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, encouraged him to think about a career in research science. On June 4, he graduated with his doctoral degree.

Dr. Arnette says his experience at UT Southwestern is not so much a success story as a "tale of two cities."

"We have a wonderful academic institution. I have never had any type of bad occurrence with any faculty member or administrator," he said.

"However, the police department? That's a different story. It's kind of sad to go through what I had to go through to get my degree strictly from the perspective of the UT Southwestern Police Department," he said.

Earlier incident

The Feb. 2 incident was not Dr. Arnette's first unpleasant experience with campus police.

On Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002, a police officer approached him as he talked on his cellphone in a campus courtyard.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 190-pound student was in a sweat suit, and Officer Juan Morales noted in a police report that Dr. Arnette was "not carrying any books or backpack associating him as being a student."

When asked for identification, Dr. Arnette "immediately became loud, upset and hostile," prompting the officer to take out his pepper spray, the police report said.

Dr. Arnette denied being hostile. He said he told the officer that he left his ID badge in his car and asked why he was being singled out from others in the courtyard. While other officers arrived, a professor walking by vouched for Dr. Arnette's identity but was asked to not interfere. Officers detained Dr. Arnette for 45 minutes but did not arrest him.

In response, UT Southwestern tightened its identification policy, requiring everyone affiliated with the medical center to wear ID badges. After the school's Office of Equal Opportunity concluded the police did nothing wrong, Dr. Arnette filed a lawsuit in 2004.

The Feb. 2 incident began in a parking garage as Dr. Arnette was returning from lunch with Steve Stippec, a research technician.

When a campus police car drove past, Dr. Arnette joked to Mr. Stippec, who is white: "Hang out with me and you'll get a police escort."

Seeing the patrol cruiser, however, reminded him that he needed to display his parking decal on his car windshield. After returning to his car, Dr. Arnette noticed the officer had parked and was watching him.

As he and Mr. Stippec walked past the police cruiser, Dr. Arnette asked the officer, Shannon Boyer, if he had a problem. In a police report, the officer said that Dr. Arnette yelled the question. Both Dr. Arnette and Mr. Stippec, however, said the question was spoken in more of an offhand tone of voice.

Then, according to their account, the following took place:

Officer Boyer jumped out and said, "You want some?" The officer was motioning with his hands for Dr. Arnette to come forward.

Dr. Arnette replied, "Man, I'm outta here."

The officer then responded: "Yeah, you'd better get your black ass on," Dr. Arnette said.

Demanding to see Dr. Arnette's ID badge, Officer Boyer drew his Taser and pointed it at Dr. Arnette. The officer did not ask for Mr. Stippec's identification.

Dr. Arnette showed his student ID badge but refused the officer's request for his driver's license.

Campus police cars are equipped with video cameras, although Officer Boyer's was not on. But one minute after the incident began, a backup officer arrived, whose camera was running.

On the video, obtained by The News through a Freedom of Information Act request, Mr. Stippec is heard telling the backup officer that Officer Boyer reacted to Dr. Arnette's question by getting out of his car and saying, "What, you want something, you want some ... ."

"Who did? The officer?" the police backup asked.

"Yes, and then one thing he even said, you know, why don't you get your black ass on. That's what it sounded like to me, unless he has other words that he said ... ."

After Dr. Arnette's arrest, police found he had two warrants for seat-belt citations and took him to the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. Because of an ongoing problem with the computer system at the Dallas County Jail, Dr. Arnette spent two days in jail.

Mr. Stippec immediately wrote an account of what happened and gave it to his supervisor. Later the same day, he repeated his account to Vernon Mullen, head of UT Southwestern's Office of Equal Opportunity and Minority Affairs.

Weeks later, in an interview with The News, Mr. Stippec was still shocked by the officer's actions: "It seemed like the stereotypical, red-necked cop personified in a movie."

Officer Boyer, 37, a four-year veteran of the campus police department, adamantly denied using a racial slur. "It's a totally false accusation," he said.

As part of a police investigation into the allegation, Officer Boyer took and passed a polygraph test in which he denied making a racial slur, according to documents obtained by The News. A draft internal affairs report concluded that the allegation "is not sustained."

Meanwhile, Mr. Mullen's Office of Equal Opportunity is conducting a separate investigation into the Feb. 2 incident.

Dr. Arnette's original lawsuit was amended to include the Feb. 2 incident. He recently gave a deposition to lawyers with the Texas attorney general's office, which represents UT Southwestern.

Security or profiling?

School leaders caution against assuming that the charges in the lawsuit are either legitimate or representative of daily life at UT Southwestern.

"It would be a leap in the reasoning process to assume that the allegations are correct, if the facts haven't been verified," said Mr. Bode, UT Southwestern's spokesman.

But after the Feb. 2 incident, at least six students - blacks and Hispanics - wrote e-mails to school officials describing experiences of possible racial profiling by police.

Steve Clark, a black fourth-year medical student, said he was frequently stopped his first two years, when medical students typically do not wear lab coats. One weekday afternoon, Mr. Clark was studying in a lab carrel, logged onto a computer, with his physiology books open. A campus officer walked by and asked if he was a student. When Mr. Clark answered yes, the officer then asked to see his ID badge

"Do I get the sense that he did that because I was black? Yes, I did," Mr. Clark told The News.

"I mean I'm sitting there, logged into a computer with my medical books open. What about that does not say medical student - besides the fact that I might be black?"

Dr. Cryer has talked to other minority students with similar experiences.

"They would be singled out, asked for identification, sometimes multiple forms of identification, and then have the identification scrutinized. They would be followed by police cars as they walked to or from the parking garage," he said. "Another recurring theme is for the police officer to ask for backup."

Mr. Bode said the school cannot take action if no formal complaint is filed.

"We hope that any student who has had experiences that they believe were discriminatory will notify the appropriate people," he said.

But minority students said they are often reluctant to speak out for fear it will hurt their progress at the school.

Mr. Clark, for example, didn't want to talk to The News until after Match Day in mid-March, when medical students are accepted into their residency program. He said he never made a formal complaint because he didn't want to cause trouble: "You'd be fighting an institution that has a big influence on my life."

Some students and faculty members believe that police stop minorities on campus because they are not used to seeing blacks and Hispanics as graduate or medical students.

"In my view, a huge part of the problem is we have been markedly expanding our minority student enrollment at a rate that has outpaced the understanding of the nonprofessional community about what diversity looks like in 2005 at a medical school," Dr. Cryer said.

Police face challenges

Thomas Bickers, acting chief of UT Southwestern's police department, will not comment on Dr. Arnette's case because of ongoing litigation.

But the chief, who returned in January from an 18-month tour of duty with the Army Reserve in Iraq and Afghanistan, will talk about the issues his department faces.

These include providing security on a campus that is open 24 hours a day, located in a gritty, urban neighborhood and used by a diverse, transient population that passes through its medical facilities every day.

One of the biggest challenges facing the chief is the racial mix of UT Southwestern's police department, which is overwhelmingly white.

The department's 32 commissioned officers include 27 Anglos, three Hispanics and two blacks. Commissioned officers can lawfully stop, detain and arrest individuals and are certified by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.

"It concerns me," Chief Bickers said, adding that he is at a competitive disadvantage.

"When you bring a qualified person of color, who has everything we're needing, rest assured that Plano, Carrollton, Garland - they're going to be knocking on that door, too. Economics being what it is, they can pay more," he said.

The department supplements its force with 52 noncommissioned officers, or guards, who assist police in providing security. Its staff totals 103 employees, of which 35 percent are minorities.

Chief Bickers insists that the racial mix of the police department does not influence his officers' judgment.

Mr. Mullen, who has headed the Office of Equal Opportunity for nine years, said there have been only two or three race-based complaints about the police during his tenure. None have been upheld, he said.

He does not see any pattern of racial profiling among campus police officers.

"I have looked at their statistics. There wasn't racial profiling. More Caucasians stopped by our officers than African-Americans or Hispanics."

However, records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show that during traffic stops, campus police searched blacks and Hispanics at a disproportionately higher rate than whites.

In 2004, blacks made up 34 percent of all stops by campus police but were six times more likely to be searched following a stop than whites. Hispanics made up 14 percent of all stops but were nearly five times more likely to be searched after a stop than Anglos.

As Mr. Mullen says, Anglos did account for 42 percent of all stops. But they accounted for just 12 percent of all searches following a stop. The pattern is nearly identical for the previous two years.

The police data on traffic stops do not differentiate between people associated with the university and those who are not. Chief Bickers said most of those stopped or searched are not connected to the university but are passing through the campus. While the campus's population is more than 50 percent white, the surrounding neighborhood is 56 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black, according to census records.

A state law passed in 2001 banned the use of race or ethnicity as a basis for law enforcement actions, including stops, searches and arrests. The law required law enforcement agencies to compile data on traffic stops and searches. In addition, the UT Southwestern Police Department has a policy against racial profiling.

Chief Bickers said that searches during traffic stops are almost always conducted when someone is arrested - usually for an outstanding warrant. Such searches are not a matter of discretion on the police officer's part, he said.

"You've got a ticket. Now it's gone to warrant. You're arrested. We search you down," he said.

Bridging the gap

The new university task force on campus and police relations, created following the Feb. 2 incident, is not seeking to establish whether racial profiling has occurred. Instead, the committee hopes to bridge the cultural gap between the police force and the rest of the campus, including minority students.

"We're not going to start going through past records and data. What we're trying to do is understand issues and come to a community understanding of what we want to be," said Dr. Charles Ginsburg, who heads up the committee composed of about 30 members from a cross-section of the campus.

"This is a very, very complicated and diverse ecosystem here," he said. "It has been everyone's wish that we have an open campus. I think that creates some interesting opportunities - and challenges."

The UT Southwestern complex sprawls across hard-pressed neighborhoods around Harry Hines Boulevard and Inwood Road. The 60-acre south campus includes classrooms, laboratories, offices and outpatient clinics. The 30-acre north campus includes more offices.

Classrooms and offices facing Harry Hines look out on several boarded-up storefronts and the Salvation Army, which serves the homeless. Thefts and break-ins of parked cars are a continuing problem on the campus.

"The same people who want an open campus also want to feel safe and protected," said Dr. Ginsburg, who is the associate dean for academic administration.

"The people who have the responsibility to make this a safe campus would probably prefer that it wasn't quite as open," he said.

Dr. Ginsburg said he "has no sense that there is any racial profiling or discrimination by anybody on this campus. You're going to have problems. My bet is they're episodic problems, they're probably not connected and probably don't have a theme."

Facing the issue

Dr. Arnette is now working on a postgraduate fellowship at UT Southwestern, where he focuses on genetic factors that predispose African-Americans to heart disease.

Initially, he said, all he wanted was an apology or acknowledgement that the police had not dealt with him properly.

"The lawsuit was filed after I went through all the proper channels," he said.

It is, he says, his way of holding the police - and the university - accountable.

"When I saw that the police could go around and hassle people and nothing happens ... it was a question of either I walk away or do something about it."

Dr. Cryer, the associate dean of minority affairs, said he believes it's in the best interest of the university to address the issue of racial profiling openly rather than avoid it.

"There is certainly the possibility that in the short term, this could have a backlash in terms of our recruitment of minorities. What would happen, hopefully, in the long term is that we would have affected a change in attitudes. And the situation for the medical students coming in future years would be better," he said.

"So if there is going to be a negative consequence, I only see that as short-term."

Staff writer Paula Lavigne contributed to this report.