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30 years ago, BGSU broiled as blacks faced police harassment

Editor’s note: Thirty years ago, BGSU’s Board of Trustees created an ad hoc police review panel following complaints of harassment from the Black Student Union and Human Rights Alliance.

This column is the first of three exploring the climate in 1977 and the discussion that continues today.

At the University, students complain they are being searched, photographed and even arrested unjustly.

Others allege verbal and physical assaults and sexual and racial discrimination by campus police.

You could be minding your own business one minute, and end up with a felony charge against you the next, students say. In one case, black students riding borrowed bikes with permission found themselves arrested after police received a report that the bikes had been stolen.

Police philosophy: Arrest first. Ask questions later.

A call to the police for help does not necessarily mean the police will show up.

No, this is not happening now. But it did happen in 1977.

Black students on campus, supported by the Human Rights Alliance and others, said minority students had suffered “years of abuse and harassment by the campus police force” and something had to be done about it.

They also alleged that a black student, Paul X. Moody, active on campus, had been falsely convicted of attempted rape of a white female student because of the rush to catch the perpetrator. They demanded that the University reopen his case and prosecute officers involved in “illegal activities.”

Confrontations between students and police were commonplace.

Confrontations between black students and police were even more commonplace.

Police threaten to sue a BG News reporter over a story about an officer’s suspension.

These were tumultuous times for University students and campus police in Bowling Green as well as on many other college campuses across the nation.

1977 BSU member Kenneth Chambers remembers.

“The issue which ignited the fire was the BSU view on the mishandling of the Paul X. Moody case,” he said. “The question, was justice served? Or was justice trampled on to serve the political and economic interests of others? If this was the case, then this lack of justice would put other people in danger.”

“All the physical evidence and description of the person responsible did not match Paul, but he was convicted,” said 1977 BSU Legal Adviser Kenneth Simonson.

Simonson and Chambers said dropping the fight was not an option.

“The BSU wanted to ensure that no abuse of a student’s human, civic or physical rights would be tolerated at BGSU,” Chambers said. “We never ever considered giving up. It never came up in conversation, perhaps because we were young, perhaps because we were right.”

Said Simonson, “If any African American understands the history of their culture before and after the arrival in this country, then they can never give up when addressing injustices.”

BSU members decided that the best way to channel their frustrations and their energy was to come up with a proposal and present it to the University Board of Trustees. That proposal called for the establishment of a police review board to monitor the actions of the campus police department with authority to hire and fire officers.

In response to the turmoil and the proposal, the University convened an ad hoc police panel in April 1977 and named two students, two faculty members, two administrators and two trustees to the board for the specific purpose of conducting hearings, studying, deliberating and, finally, issuing a report and recommendations to try to resolve this heated issue.

It was considered very fortunate at the time that throughout the duration of the controversy, no one got hurt.

The ad hoc police panel conducted a seven-month, closed-door study that involved hearing testimony, visiting other police departments and reading reports on police policies and procedures.

“There were many allegations of inappropriate behavior both professionally and racially….” recalls ad hoc police panel member Narbeth R. Emmanuel, who was a BGSU graduate student in 1977. “We asked tough questions and at times we received painful and heart wrenching stories.”

Calling the campus police department “a paramilitary organization that is apparently accountable to no one,” Black Student Union members made it clear they were not going to accept a slap-on-the-wrist set of recommendations.

“The existence of such an armed force on a college campus is as questionable as it is dangerous,” they wrote in a memo to the ad hoc panel in its final days of work. “We hope that they (the college administration) will not prevail any further upon our patience.”

Meanwhile, the police chief and half of the campus police department had resigned since the panel’s formation. Three more officers were expected to quit and the handful who remained were afraid to make arrests for fear of repercussions.

“An officer cannot function when you take away his decision-making power,” lamented Lt. Gerkens. “He has been trained. When he has to hesitate and think about it, he’s lost his effectiveness.”

Officers wondered whether they would still have jobs in a few weeks or whether their police department would be abolished.

To say morale was bad was an understatement. Said Gerkens, “If there was [a problem] there can’t be anymore because there isn’t anybody here anymore. A police officer cannot exist here.”

After deliberations, the ad hoc police panel would soon release its much-anticipated final report and recommendations. A few weeks later, students would vote the student-police controversy and ad hoc report the top story of 1977.

What would be in that final ad hoc panel report? Panel members and those who knew were completely mum about it, but rumors were plentiful. Would the control of campus police rest with another agency, perhaps the city police department? Would officers be demoted or fired? Would the panel recommend taking guns away from the police, as some speculated? Or, would the panel’s findings suggest doing away with a university police department altogether? Could students and police ever co-exist again after all the commotion? How would things ever settle down?

The entire ad hoc panel process had been secretive and so were the final days. Tempers were hot, nerves frayed, every word that was spoken about the study was analyzed.

Suspense heightened as the date for the report’s release – Nov. 10, 1977 – drew nearer.

The whole campus waited.

Julie Hohman is a University alumna and was a BG News reporter from 1975 until 1978. Send responses to her column to [email protected].

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