Police called on black UMass employee walking to work

  • Students pass the Old Chapel on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. Suzanne Kreiter

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2018

AMHERST — Reg Andrade, a longtime employee at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is black, was walking from the recreation center to work across campus early on Friday, Sept. 14, like he does every day. But on that day, somebody decided to call the police on him.

An unidentified caller rang the university’s anonymous tip line at 7:45 a.m., saying that a “very agitated” African-American man had walked into the Whitmore Administration Building with a “large duffel bag … hanging off a strap, very heavy hanging on the ground,” according to a transcript of the call released by the university. Andrade’s physical appearance and clothing matched the description the caller provided.

Police shut down the building and searched for Andrade, a 14-year employee at the university who works as a case manager in the disability services office. He said he returned from a restroom break to find two plainclothes police officers waiting to question him — about what he did the night before, when he got to campus, whether he was upset walking into the building.

For Andrade, the experience is a clear case of racial profiling, and one that left him shaken.

“How can somebody just walk by me, not even speaking, and try to discern that I was agitated?” Andrade said of the caller in an interview with the Gazette. “This is when it becomes dangerous, when people know how to push the buttons of law enforcement … Those were those strong key buzzwords: agitated black man dragging a heavy bag.”

In an email to the campus community, university Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said that he hopes the anonymous call was well-motivated to protect public safety, but that he also knows that racial profiling — intentional or not — corrodes efforts to make the university welcoming to all.

“For our community, this is a difficult matter,” Subbaswamy wrote. “We are living at the intersection of two very trying issues. We must all do our part to respond quickly to perceived threats of potential violence on campus, and we must build an inclusive community that respects everyone and rejects profiling.”

A reporter was unable to contact university Police Chief Tyrone Parham late Sunday. In an interview with The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, which first reported on the story, Parham said university police responded promptly to the call to the tip line — which isn’t usually checked immediately, unlike the dispatch and 911 lines — because of the behavioral details the caller described.

“One of the things we zoned in on with that message, because we listened to it a couple times, was really the behavior,” Parham told the Collegian. “So it’s not necessarily the description of the person, it was really the behaviors that were exhibited, as to the reasons that we thought we needed to confirm this.”

University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said Sunday that Whitmore was closed off to people entering the building for about 45 minutes.

The incident follows a situation at Smith College earlier this summer when an employee called campus police on Oumou Kanoute, a black student who was on break from her summer job teaching at the college.

Andrade said his office retreat last month was scheduled to take place at Smith College, but it was relocated to the UMass campus because Andrade felt uncomfortable at Smith because of what happened to Kanoute.

“A couple weeks later, this occurs,” he said.

This is not the first time that Andrade said he has been racially profiled on campus. One summer, when he was a student at the university, someone called the police on him while he sat in an empty classroom listening to an audio book. Later, as an employee, someone again called the police on him after he finished working at a new student orientation.

“I always have to have my ID card on me, always, no matter where I go,” he said.

Andrade described the episode as “extremely nerve wracking,” and something he’ll now always remember when making the walk to his office from his morning workout.

“I’m starting to think these two might have guns, these two men might have weapons on them, (and) here I am feeling extremely vulnerable, not comfortable in my own office,” he said of his experience being interrogated by the two officers who responded to the scene. “Where is this going, am I going to get charged with a crime? Are they going to arrest me in front of my co-workers? Handcuff me?”

To describe how he feels after his third encounter with racial profiling on campus, Andrade used the analogy of an athlete spraining an ankle multiple times. Each time, he said, the healing process takes longer.

“Each time it gets deeper and deeper and more intense,” he said. “And psychologically, emotionally and physically, it’s just draining.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.