University of Iowa reviewing police protocol after response to assault on black student

Harreld: 'We now recognize this as a failure in current UI protocol'

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IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa student who said he was assaulted near campus over the weekend in a racially-fueled attack went to UI police Monday night to report the crime but was turned away and sent to Iowa City police.

UI authorities on Wednesday said they didn’t know Marcus Owens, 19, was a student or any details about the attack — only that it occurred downtown — when the department referred him to Iowa City police between 10:45 and 11 p.m. Monday. And Lucy Wiederholt, interim director of the UI Department of Public Safety, said that’s standard protocol for incidents that occur off campus.

“It eliminates having them retell the story more than once,” Wiederholt said. “So at that time, as soon as we discovered it was downtown, we didn’t ask any additional questions or have him tell the story.”

But UI President Bruce Harreld on Wednesday afternoon — after meeting with Owens and his family about the attack that’s garnering national attention — acknowledged the UI police protocol falls short in its service to students.

“We now recognize this as a failure in current UI protocol and will be working with many campus and community partners, including UIPD, to improve reporting mechanisms for the future,” he said in a statement delivered to the campus community. “The University of Iowa is working to create a climate of inclusion, and this hate crime demonstrates we have a great deal of work left to do.”

Students across campus on Wednesday — and on social media using the Twitter hashtag #ExplainIowa — criticized university officials for not doing more to protect, support, and inform students. UI sophomore Simone Banks-Mackey, 19, said the UI police decision to turn away Owens without asking more questions prevented the campus from learning about the incident until days later and after it had been widely circulated in the press.

“If any police department gets a victim, that should be reported,” Banks-Mackey said. “They might not have the means to go to another police department.”

According to Iowa City police, Owens came to their front desk at 11:21 p.m. Monday to report being assaulted between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Saturday in an alley in the 200 block of Iowa Avenue. He told investigators an individual approached him and hit him multiple times.

“He was then struck several more times by multiple subjects while being called racial slurs,” according to an Iowa City news release.

Lt. Mike Brotherton, head of the Iowa City Police Department’s investigations unit, told The Gazette on Wednesday his team is investigating the incident as a hate crime, and they have “several good leads,” including a possible suspect and knowledge of who was involved.

“We should have some really good direction of what’s going on with this case in the next day or two,” he said.

‘I didn’t do anything wrong’

Owens’ uncle, Darrell Owens, spoke with The Gazette and offered additional detail about the attack. He said his nephew had been eating with friends at Eden Lounge and was in the walkway on the phone when someone yelled a racial epithet at him. Marcus, according to his uncle, initially ignored it and then told the suspect he didn’t want any trouble. That’s when the other man hit him, according to Darrell Owens.

When Marcus started defending himself, the other suspects joined the melee — kicking him and yelling slurs, Darrell Owens said.

Following the assault, Owens sought medical treatment at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for non-life threatening injuries, according to police. He had front teeth knocked out and suffered a damaged eye socket, ABC7 in Chicago reported. He also required almost a dozen stitches to his lip.

His uncle said Marcus was in the hospital all day Sunday.

“We’re optimistic he’ll be fine,” Darrell Owens said, adding that his nephew was getting his eye looked at and had an appointment with a dentist to fix two broken teeth. “He keeps saying, ‘I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything wrong.’”

UI public safety director Wiederholt said the UI Hospitals and Clinics will contact UI police when students come to the emergency room reporting a sexual assault or a shooting or stabbing. Assault reports involving students are not typically reported to UI police unless the student requests that, Wiederholt said.

Wiederholt said Owens did not do that, as far as she knows.

Iowa City police didn’t initially contact the UI Department of Public Safety about the investigation, but Wiederholt said she reached out early Wednesday after Owens and his family spoke to the TV station in Chicago on Tuesday.

Both departments now are cooperating on the investigation.

Owens and his family overnight Tuesday left a message with the UI Dean of Students Office, and administrators met with the family on campus Wednesday morning.

During that discussion, Owens requested to speak with UI President Harreld — who came and joined the meeting in progress. UI Vice President of Student Life Tom Rocklin said he doesn’t know what was discussed but that UI officials offered to help and support Owens in any way.

“It’s quite common when students experience some sort of trauma for us to work with faculty members to offer incompletes, change the dates of things that are due, rearrange exams schedules,” Rocklin said. “Those are the sorts of things that we can do.”

Darrell Owens said Harreld and other administrators were “extremely supportive and cooperative” and the family is happy the university is taking a stance against the attack. While the initial response to the assault was “extremely slow,” Owens said media coverage has sped things up.

“We feel like we’re getting somewhere,” Darrell Owens said.

‘A great deal of work to do’

In response to widespread concerns about why the university didn’t issue a Hawk Alert or a “timely warning” for the incident until 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, officials stressed they simply didn’t know about it but were “deeply disturbed” once they did.

If police arrest suspects in connection with the crime, and administrators determine they’re UI students, Rocklin said they will be subject to discipline under the code of student life.

“And an assault is a very serious violation of the code of student life, which would normally result in sanctions that would separate the student from the university,” Rocklin said.

The suspects initially were described as being three white males, average height, and about 19- to 22-years-old. Owens and his uncle told ABC7 in Chicago that a witness yelled at the assailants and they fled.

Iowa City police Lt. Brotherton told The Gazette that investigators checked for possible surveillance video from the area where the assault reportedly occurred. But, he said, “There are no cameras.”

“We checked into that,” he said.

Once the Iowa City Police Department issued a news release Wednesday morning, UI police distributed a crime alert, offering assistant and counseling for students, staff, and faculty. But members of the campus community continued questioning the university response.

“#ExplainIowa why Chicago found out about a hate crime on our campus before we did?” wrote one Twitter user.

“Black student gets brutally beat up by THREE white men on Saturday and no one is finding out about it until today #explainiowa,” another post reads.

UI officials responded to some of the concerns by outlining the way in which Hawk Alerts are used — saying they’re meant for imminent threats to campus safety, such as active shooters or severe weather. Crime alerts, on the other hand, are issued even when a threat is not imminent in accordance with the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.

Rocklin said this incident is a clear indication the campus needs to improve the climate for students of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.

“At the University of Iowa, we work hard and continue to work hard to create a climate of inclusion for all of our students, and I’m deeply concerned and saddened by the report that this was a hate crime,” he said. “It demonstrates that we have, as does the rest of society, a great deal of work to do.”

‘My voiced was silenced’

Hours after notifying the campus of the weekend assault, the university hosted a campuswide forum on its new five-year strategic plan, during which several students, staff, and faculty members addressed diversity and social justice issues on campus.

One UI freshman, Hira Mustafa, 19, recounted through tears a recent experience she had on campus after attending a Mehndi, or henna, event — a tradition in the Pakistani culture.

“I was dressed in my cultural clothing, and while I was waiting for a Nite Ride, there was a male that approached me, and I was holding my phone up, and he came up and said, ‘Oh, are you going to blow us up with your phone?’” Mustafa said. “He proceeded to call me a terrorist.”

She reported feeling stunned and let down by the UI response. Mustafa reported the incident to the Dean of Students, who said the student technically had not broken any rules.

“I feel my voiced was silenced,” she said.

Mustafa called for real engagement of UI minority students in pursuit of actual change — as did several others who also testified to racist incidents on campus.

Wednesday’s news of the weekend assault came just one day after UI administrators — including President Bruce Harreld — hosted a discussion around social justice on campus and in the middle of the university’s “Just Living” theme semester.

During the Tuesday afternoon forum, several students raised concerns about the majority white campus and the fact that few students of different races or ethnicities were involved in the conversation.

Donovan Roberts, a UI freshmen and student ambassador for the theme semester, said “a lot of students are the ones who are feeling oppressed.” He noted that most of the dozens in attendance on Tuesday were faculty and staff members.

“Who is dealing with the problems, and are we hearing their voices enough?” Roberts said.

He noted the setting for the discussion — in the senate chambers of the Old Capitol Museum.

“I know this is a public place for us to speak, but coming from students who come from oppression, this is not a comfortable place to talk about their issues,” he said. “This is not the place for them.”

UI sophomore Nazira Coury, 19, said Wednesday’s news that UI police referred a UI assault victim to Iowa City police without asking questions exemplifies the challenge minority students face in having their voices heard.

“That explains why people of minority groups don’t think it’s even worth reporting it to higher administration,” Coury said.

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