was midnight, June 15, when Dawn and Todd Comer left Cherry Lane
in a good mood after an evening watching movies with friends.
Before leaving the MSU apartment complex, they briefly stopped
their car at a nearby dumpster to pick up a couple of pegboards.
Todd, a Ph.D. candidate in English literature, and Dawn, a creative
writing teacher, are passionate thrift-store goers and call scavenging
a religious mandate. That evening the Department of
Police and Public Safety taught them a lesson about the criminal
aspect of picking up abandoned material.
Half a mile away we saw flashing lights behind us and were
pulled over by not one but two police cars, said Dawn Comer.
MSU officer Britten Riggs told them they could be fined up to
$500 or receive 90 days in jail for taking the pegboards, even
though they were destined for the landfill. Todd was charged with
violating MSU Ordinance 26.01, which states, No person shall
remove any property from lands or buildings governed by the Board
of Trustees of Michigan State University.
Older alumni argue Michigan campus police have always been rather
heavy handed. This incident moved me to reflect on the role of
police on college campuses. Today, students at MSU talk about
racial profiling, random witch-hunts, snitch networks and undercover
cops. In honor of a new police chiefs arrival at MSU, I
decided to research some patterns of police student relationships
The MSU police advertise they are committed to Courtesy
and Excellence, but this slogan evokes cynicism in light
of the undercover operation on Feb. 19, 2000. Students for Economic
Justice, a Michigan State affiliate of United Students Against
Sweatshops, had become active at MSU and were engaged in a campaign
to end MSUs affiliation with a corporate-controlled labor-monitoring
body called the Fair Labor Association. Founding member Samantha
Volare claimed to be an elementary education junior. But
six months later it became clear Samantha was actually
officer Jamie Gonzales of the MSU Police Department. At a demonstration
in January 2001 pictures were taken and her secret identity was
Students, faculty and staff reacted strongly to the undercover
operation by criticizing MSU police Chief Bruce Benson. When he
retired in June 2002, after 16 years as the head of the department,
some suspected it was due to this fiasco. I think it had
a lot to do with how we uncovered this incident, said Shaun
Godwin, an MSU anthropology student and member of Students for
Newly sworn-in MSU police Chief Jim Dunlap denies any connection.
Bruce is a good friend. I think he would have told me, but
he said the incident had nothing to do with his departure.
City Pulse met with Dunlap, a man with a pleasant smile who enjoys
talking about his travels to Germany, Hungary and France. Overall
he impressed the reporter as epitomizing the image of a good
cop friendly, well mannered and with good taste.
But the police chief does not believe the undercover action was
a mistake. Weve looked at some of the potential things
that could have transpired [like the violent protests in Seattle].
Maybe the measure of success on campus is the fact that we had
no property destruction, no injuries, and people protested peacefully.
Guidelines adopted in 2001 require the approval of President Peter
McPherson for any campus undercover operation, what Dunlap calls
a slightly different mechanism. When asked if any
were under way, he replied that if there were, I probably
wouldnt tell you. Dunlap said Gonzales now works as
a uniform patrol officer. Every once in a while they send
her to political events, said Godwin. Its a
little reminder to us that she was an undercover cop.
tried to get a sense of the history of police surveillance on
the MSU campus. Mike Price pays close attention to police issues
and has been a political activist since the 1960s. At that time
McPherson and Price were classmates at MSU. Price, who was a theater
student, dropped out because theater wasnt addressing
what was happening in Vietnam or in the Civil Rights Movement.
When I met with him he showed me a large pile of FBI files hed
During the 1960s, the FBI tried to disrupt Students for a Democratic
Societys activities in East Lansing. We were considered
the key trouble makers, so they kept surveillance on us even when
thousands joined. Price believes since Bushs Patriot
Act, campus police surveillance is turning us back to the Vietnam
era. Its not about surveillance, its about harassment
After a May 1965 open-housing rally, which led to the arrests
of 59 students, the East Lansing Police Department and the MSU
Department of Public Safety formed a political surveillance unit
that spied on hundreds of faculty and students. Its files were
shared with the Michigan State Police red squad and
the FBI. By 1976 the red squad had nearly 38,000 files. They kept
particularly close tabs on anti-Vietnam groups, which were targeting
Michigan States ties to the federal government, defense
contractors and Air Force and Army ROTC programs on campus.
In April 1966 the San Francisco-based Ramparts magazine even came
out with a cover story on MSU. The cover was illustrated by a
color drawing of Madame Nhu, South Vietnams former first
lady, in a Spartan cheerleaders outfit. The article The
University on the Make reported on CIA involvement in an
MSU project aiding the Republic of Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration
had asked MSU to not only train civilian bureaucrats, but also
security and police personnel, in a project lasting from May 1955
to June 1962. With more than 1,000 employees and $25 million from
the Foreign Operations Administration. This is the tragedy
of Michigan State professors: we were all automatic cold warriors,
wrote Stanley K. Sheinbaum in Ramparts. At the time Sheinbaum
was the coordinator of the MSU Advisory Group, which became commonly
known as the MSU Vietnam Project. MSU President John Hannah, and
the projects chief adviser, Wesley R. Fishel, denied charges
that they were used as a front for a CIA unit, or that MSU bought
guns and ammunition and trained secret police.
Inveterate scavengers Dawn and Todd Comer, an MSU graduate
student, found themselves in trouble with the MSU Police when
they tried to salvage pegboards from a campus dumpster.
chief Dunlap laughed and denied there were any undercover actions
since the anti-Vietnam turmoil. Ive been here 32 years.
To my knowledge the operation in 2001 was the only time in 25
years that this has happened. But students around for more
than five years remember this cannot be true. The department has
frequently sent out so-called plainclothes officers, a finer word
for undercover cops. They patrolled MSU residence halls in February
1997 in search of underage drinking and related crimes.
Students report indications that local authorities and polices
are taking advantage of the growing fear since 9/11. On Sept.
21 last year the Department of Police and Public Safety sent out
an e-mail seeking three individuals
dressed in their native attire. Although the police admitted
that these individuals had done nothing illegal, they
still wanted to speak with them to resolve the concerns.
The e-mail also asked that suspicious incidents be immediately
reported to the MSU police.
Jacqueline Miller, a sociology graduate student, responded to
this e-mail by sending an angry letter to the police. In
this current atmosphere where people are in a witch-hunt frame
of mind, how could you think it conscionable to offer three specific
targets for ignorant, angry peoples wrath? Why not just
do the job of finding these folks yourselves? She said she
sincerely doubted many members of the campus community had an
understanding of what native Pakistani attire looked
like, and, that it vaguely resembles the attire of many
other Southeast Asian, Arab, and African nations. Miller
believed this and other incidents raised the question of
whether the Department can be trusted to protect everyones
safety in the context of this multicultural crisis.
But Dunlap defended the strategy. The three men seemed suspicious
because they entered the office of the business schools
dean, an area that wasnt open to the public. Dunlap argues
in a changed environment not only did the police have
a responsibility for security but also to the community. If
you had a serious concern over whether or not some violent act
is going to occur, would you rather have 62 or 55,000 people looking
Jim Dunlap, MSUs new chief of the Department of Police
and Public Safety, is overseeing a staff that has grown 28
percent since 1995, about four times more than the student
population has increased in the same period.
Sykes, former Student Assembly chairperson of the Associated Students
of MSU, strongly criticized this view. Its a good
idea in theory, but obviously it doesnt deal with all of
the prejudices of the people out there. He felt that it
was wrong for the Police Department to send out the e-mail. When
Timothy McVeigh was convicted of blowing up the federal building
in Oklahoma City, there was no racial profiling of white men.
Since 9/11, Sykes, who is half African American and half Arabic,
said he has had many experiences in which racial profiling was
a factor. Several times a month friends with minority backgrounds
have reported similar stories about racial profiling on campus.
Attending different events on campus, I found out that minority
events have much more of a police presence than Caucasian events.
If campus police continued to ask people to share private suspicions,
they would be just giving into the propaganda that every
Arabic man is a terrorist.
According to a new survey commissioned by the Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation, about half of Americans, or 49 percent, are willing
to relinquish personal freedoms and privacies to protect the country.
Steve Swart certainly isnt the kind of person who wants
to give up his First Amendment Rights. He has worked for Students
for Economic Justice and now leads Direct Action!, a Lansing-based
activist group, which helped MSUs Graduate Employees Union
fight for a contract in March.
Since America started its war against terrorism, Swart has observed
an increase of snitch networking in neighborhoods,
or what is referred to as community policing. Whereas the department
considers community policing to be public relations, Swart feels
that it encourages people to tell on other members of the community.
The anthropologist believes this trend leads to a policing
of more and more aspects of our lives.
Dunlap doesnt share this view and would like to expand community
policing from four employees to 32. He expects residents to develop
confidence in the officers and report suspicious movements in
their neighborhood in order to reduce crime. Dunlap points out
that since community policing was started in 1987, felony crimes
have fallen 66 percent. But this trend is actually mirrored on
campuses across the country. Its mainly due to a strong
decrease of burglary and larceny, which went down by 77 and 61
percent at MSU. And this has certainly just as much to do with
the student bodys rising affluence than with community policing.
It raises the question of why more police are needed while the
crime rate is dropping.
MSU has always had a very special police force. In the 1930s the
university established the first college police administration
program in the United States. Today, the department proudly recruits
new officers from the Universitys Department of Criminal
Justice. Dunlap said that about 60 student volunteers work with
62 police officers on daily activities such as lot watching, vehicle
registration and ticketing. To improve the relationship of minority
students and police, the department has started a strategy
team. It collects data on traffic stops to determine whether
police checks are based on racial, gender or age prejudices. The
action report is released quarterly on the MSU Police web site
government leader Matt Clayson believes such self-control could
be a step in the right direction, but that improving the communication
between students and police could only work to a certain extent.
Thus, he doesnt support the idea of more police outreach,
like police sponsored dances or events. This was one suggestion
from the action report to improve student-police relations. To
be honest, most students dont care about that kind of stuff.
We want to study, we want to go out on the weekend and be with
friends, not with the MSU police.
Most of the sources City Pulse talked to have criticized the high
police presence on campus. In fact MSU has increased its police
staff in the last seven years. In 2002 the department had 100
full-time employees, including 62 sworn officers, for a total
campus enrollment of 43,366. In 1995 the department employed only
86 full-time employees, including just 52 sworn officers for a
total enrollment of 40,254. This means the ratio of police has
increased from 1.3 per 1,000 students to 1.4. Thats actually
a 28 percent increase of staff. Other big state universities,
including the University of Florida (2.1 / 1.9), the University
of Texas (1.4 / 1.3), or the University of Berkeley (2.4 / 2.4)
have either decreased or maintained their police student ratio.
Student government leader Matthew Weingarden points out that the
high density of police in the area East Lansing, Lansing,
Michigan State Police and the MSU Police has created a
lot of confusion and inconsistency of how security is supposed
to work. For the last years especially the MSU police were
really treating students wrongly. The police took a headstrong
approach, almost dictating what student groups would have in terms
of their security.
in the 1960s MSU was well known for its political witch-hunting
(the CIA University), today there are new categories
dividing the campus community into us and them.
Compared with the 1960s, police no longer need to worry about
public turmoil. Today there is more concern for underage drinking
at private parties and in peoples dorm rooms. Michigan State
recently received a lot of media attention because of its hardline
policy against underage drinking. In April, four female MSU students
pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in connection with the death of
18-year-old Eric Blair, who drank alcohol at a party in their
home the same night before he drowned in the Red Cedar River.
The girls originally faced felony charges for running an unlicensed
bar at their East Lansing apartment.
The city decided to prosecute the case to the fullest extent
of the law. Its sad that so many lives were affected because
of someones poor decision, comments the Academic Assemblys
Clayson. Swart makes another point. People fear having parties
if they have to worry about a felony. Instead theyll
get in their car and go out to bars to drink. But drinking
and driving is the much bigger problem. This case, one must
note, was carried out by state prosecutors and handled by East
Hundreds of bikes fill an impoundment lot at MSU, which has
another lot just as full. This summer, police impounded 1,400
bikes in a two-week period because they lacked registration
stickers. Students likened it to official theft.
sees an embarrassing double standard. Theyll harass
students for nothing, but athletes dont ever get charged.
He believes it has been one of the most disturbing things
at MSU how obviously these sports stars are being favored.
A controversial situation came when MSU decided to provide a full-ride
scholarship to alleged rapist Eric Knott. A nationally renowned
high school football star, Knott was accused of brutally raping
a 13-year-old girl in 1999. Whenever the administration
is seriously afraid of damages to their image, there seems to
be considerably higher tolerance for athletes mistakes,
Some students feel experiences with campus police negatively influence
their impression of quality of life at MSU. The insensitive enforcement
of ordinances can be a main culprit. This summer hundreds of students
complained after the police impounded roughly 1,400 bikes within
two weeks. On the main campus, signs were posted with impoundment
dates, but in university apartments such as Cherry Lane and Spartan
Village, unregistered bicycles were impounded without notice other
than one e-mail. Renters who purchased bicycles during summer
semesters were at risk of having them seized on any given day
perhaps before having the opportunity to even register
them. Letters to The State News complained about the raid-like
clearing of property. English senior Ian Coote wrote: Give
DPPS $2 for a sticker to put on your bike in case its stolen.
Or, if you dont, they steal your bike the
exact crime the department is trying to prevent, right?
Dunlap said his own daughter also lost her bike in this action.
Sometimes there is a happy ending. As you remember at the beginning
of this report, Todd and Dawn Comer were charged for taking lumber
from a campus dumpster. On June 26, they went to the 54-B District
Court in East Lansing. The dumpster criminals were
very afraid of the outcome of this hearing. But prosecutor Tracey
L. Meyer dropped charges. We were fined $30, which the prosecutor
said was in the interest of justice. For who, I wasnt exactly
sure, said Todd Comer. The Ph.D. candidate found the property
description humorous: Wood (3 Boards), Owner: MSU, Value:
Jamie Gonzales in uniform (bottom) and in the January 2001
march that revealed her secret identity.
Gordon-Stone, assistant curator of the MSU Museum, comments: Some
of these policies are authored with seemingly little understanding
of campus culture. If reusing MSU trash were not a crime, campus
police officers would not have to spend their time guarding garbage.
I am reminded of the movie Brazil (1985), in which
the public believes the protagonist Harry Tuttle (played by Robert
De Niro) to be a terrorist but really is a plumber who avoids
complying with annoying ordinances. At the end of the movie the
frustrated Tuttle destroys the building where the files and ordinances
are kept. After a big explosion he is ironically covered up by
these documents he was fighting against. His friends try to uncover
him, but find nothing underneath. The person had disappeared.
Since MSU students are relatively well behaved as crime
statistics show one wonders about the serious precautionary
measures. Some argue its perhaps the result of police training
since the 1999 riots (after the MSU mens basketball team
was defeated in the Final Four). Dunlap believes its better
to be safe than sorry. He said that at a recent police chiefs
conference, researchers announced violent campus crime is expected
to increase significantly in the next five years. The riots reminded
the police that students have the potential to be violent. But
in general is it right or just to see the student population as
more threatening than others because they are young? Wouldnt
this be called discrimination? A lot of it is fear mongering,
says Swart. Its beneficial for them to create an atmosphere
of fears and paranoia because it keeps dissent quiet.