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University Police Reorganize and Students Express Concerns With Officers’ Masks

by Bailey Weber

Photo from Pitt-Greensburg's Fall 2020 Annual Safety and Fire Safety Report.

Pitt-Greensburg’s campus police force has changed this semester without notice, along with the other regional campuses’ as well. Recently, students of color have raised concerns about Pitt-Greensburg Police wearing Thin Blue Line and Blue Lives Matter masks while working, too.

Previously, each campus had its own police force, but they have now merged into one unit. Campus police now has one lieutenant instead of a chief.

The Insider spoke with President Dr. Gregerson to gain some insight as to why this change occurred, as well as address students’ concerns.

“When we merged with the Oakland Police Department for a “One Pitt Police” Department, all three of the regional campuses’ Chiefs of Police were reassigned into a different role of Lieutenant,” Dr. Gregerson said. “The idea is that there is one person responsible, a Commander, to supervise all of the regional campuses’ departments. Lieutenant Lynch now reports to the Commander. When they reorganized the department, Oakland decided there was no reason to have a Chief of Police on each campus, since there would be overall regional supervision.”

Oakland merged all the regional campuses’ police departments into one unit operating under the direction of Commander Andy Redman, who is now the head of the police department. Commander Redman does not come to campus on a daily basis, but only intermittently.

“The Pitt Police are a department within the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management, headed by VC Ted Fritz.  Our department head is Chief James Loftus.  I report to Deputy Chief Holly Lamb and am responsible for coordination of operations on the regional campuses,” Redman said.  “Each campus station is led by a lieutenant, in your case at UPG Lieutenant Dan Lynch.  Think of each campus station as a zone or district, like a larger city or county may have.”

Redman is in charge of making sure the officers on campus are in check. He communicates with them via email, Zoom meetings, and phone calls throughout the day. Since he cannot be on campus every day, Lieutenant Lynch acts as the head of the department in his absence.

There has been discussion among students on campus regarding police officers wearing Blue Lives Matter and Thin Blue Line masks while on duty as well. Many police officers and those in support of them endorse the movements.

A Pitt-Greensburg Police Officer wearing a mask featuring a Thin Blue Line flag while on duty this semester.

According to The Police Tribune, a law enforcement news publication, the Blue Lives Matter movement is “a countermovement in the United States advocating that those who are prosecuted and convicted of killing law enforcement officers should be sentenced under hate crime statutes.”

Commander Redman, however, believes that Pitt officers wear the masks as a point of pride, not to represent any countermovement.

“Police officers are generally very proud of their profession and commitment to the communities they serve. Much like many other professions (pharmacists, lawyers, doctors, etc.), police officers have adopted imagery and symbols meant to honor and represent the people that have come before them. 1,928 police officers have given their lives in service of their communities since 2010. The blue line, St. Michael the Archangel, and other symbols are meant to convey a belief that, while we should never be complacent in self-reflection and improvement, the profession is a noble and necessary one, and hard lessons were learned at the expense of brave men and women of all beliefs and ethnic or racial origins giving their lives in service of their communities,” Redman said.

However, many students of color have expressed they feel threatened by officers wearing these masks. They feel this way because, historically, many officers in the country have racially profiled people of color, especially black people, and treated them unfairly. Blue Lives Matter masks in particular have made them uncomfortable, as the slogan was created as a response to Black Lives Matter.

The Black Lives Matter movement began on social media in the summer of 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, started the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” on Twitter after Zimmerman’s acquittal was announced. On their website, they say the movement “is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

Dr. Gregerson gave some advice for students of color who are feeling intimidated by officers’ masks.

“I would invite them to have a forum where the police officers and students come together and have a conversation about this, so every party knows what others are thinking, each group or individual could explain their own personal point of view,” Dr. Gregerson said.

Students have questioned the permittance of officers wearing these masks, as well as the University’s stance on police brutality and the Blue Lives Matter movement. But, Dr. Gregerson says everyone is guaranteed First Amendment rights on campus grounds.

“That is a freedom of expression situation. We can’t, unless someone wore something offensive or advocated something that would be inconsistent with who we are as an institution, we cannot tell you, ‘you can’t wear this mask.’ Just like I cannot tell you if you wanted to wear a Black Lives Matter mask, for example. I would not say that, ‘you’re not allowed, that it is offensive to the University.’ Of course, that is not offensive to the University. Those face masks are the individual’s freedom of expression,” Dr. Gregerson said.

This brought up the question of censorship. What is considered “offensive” or “inconsistent with who we are as an institution?” What kinds of expressions are prohibited on campus?

According to Graduate Resident Director Molly Verostick, since Pitt-Greensburg is a public institution, all students’ First Amendment rights are protected as long as they’re not inciting violence.

“In general, without using Pitt-Greensburg specifically, students have to think about where they are hanging their statements up. For example, what are you putting on your door, that is facing the exterior hall, which is technically a public space? What are you putting in your window that everyone can see? For a lot of institutions, they can say, ‘this is part of our designated public forum,’ which means you have to reserve that space after permission for specific events most of the time, such as protests or campaigns which can be religious or political,” Verostick said.

How does this affect students if they would want to set up a protest on campus? The students would need to get permission, because the University is a public forum. However, they can deny protests due to the time, manner, and/or place which they occur. The University bans any expression which incites violence, which is permitted because of the rule regarding the manner of protests.

Since wearing Thin Blue Line and Blue Lives Matter masks is not directly violent, officers are permitted to do it, even though it may make students of color feel uncomfortable, uneasy, or unsafe.

If a student were to feel unsafe in a situation on campus, Verostick defined the steps that students could take to resolve the issue, from talking to their Resident Director (RD) to having a meeting with the conduct board on campus.

“It is situational. But, we are a public institution. Everyone gets a due process right to a hearing. If something were to turn violent, our first thing would be to call campus police to intervene and separate. If someone were to report speech that makes them feel unsafe in any way, we are going to make sure, especially me as an RD, that they feel safe,” Verostick said. “I am going to try and help you and contact people up above. That would be campus police, [but] again, [it’s] situational. We would meet with them through the conduct board and we would hear all sides of the story, because you want to hear what everyone has to say, and it is their legal right.”

Dr. Gregerson encourages students to reach out if they are interested in discussing these issues in a forum.

“We have to be considerate and talk together in a fruitful way rather than fighting and arguing,” Dr. Gregerson said.

1 Comment on University Police Reorganize and Students Express Concerns With Officers’ Masks

  1. James Montanez // November 20, 2020 at 1:13 am // Reply

    I don’t think the blue line flag should displayed, first the American Flag is not black and white, second this flag is in violation of the American flag code, and third this blue line symbol is now looked at as a symbol of oppression similar to the confederate flag. It is my belief that the police wear it to incite people, and not wear it as a symbol of pride. All you have to do is take a survey, and I bet the majority of the people will tell you they don’t want to see officers wear this symbol or display it in offices or vehicles. The American Flag is red, white, and blue

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