A video of the trespassing arrest of junior Mohammed Rifat in May sparked controversy over the Department of Public Safety’s methods amid confusion about his enrollment status and campus access.
DPS threatened senior Saifeddin Abdalrahman with obstruction charges for filming the arrest of Rifat, who had taken a medical leave of absence at the end of the fall 2017 semester. Abdalrahman was not charged.
Many students reacted negatively and commented on their confusion and frustration underneath the video, which was posted on Facebook a day after Rifat’s arrest.
“I am infuriated that this happened — that the officer clearly coerced the student filming into stopping when he was in no way obstructing and that our campus is not a safe place for students of color,” junior John Cole said.
In an email to the Campus Times, Director of Public Safety Mark Fischer responded to this controversy, stating that the University had found DPS’s action to be within its boundaries.
“A University review was commissioned to evaluate the actions and circumstances of Mr. Rifat’s arrest,” Fischer said. “The subsequent report confirmed that this arrest was within DPS policy, lawful, and not in any way bias related.”
Rifat was arrested by DPS on the Residential Quad on May 26. He was then taken into custody by the Rochester Police Department and spent a few hours in a jail cell before his friends bailed him out.
“The fact that it happened through the University to a University student was very surprising to me,” junior Ben Feldsott said.
“You don’t expect your friend who’s a student […]to get arrested on campus by campus police. It just gave a general sense of uncertainty […] the fact that there really wasn’t anything he had done wrong made it seem almost more absurd and confusing,” said Feldsott.
A hearing held on May 29 dismissed all charges against Rifat at the request of the University. Administrators attended the hearing in support of Rifat’s case.
Afterwards, Rifat was informed his campus ban was lifted and offered residence-hall housing and financial aid.
“It was eye opening. I felt personally offended and I felt scared when I was in jail,” Rifat said. “After getting out of jail, I did not feel comfortable for two days. In general, I just felt confusion.”
Prior to his arrest, Rifat told the Campus Times he had two encounters with Public Safety where they made him leave campus and warned him that they would arrest him for trespassing if he came on campus grounds again.
The first occurred in Rettner where DPS found him sleeping on a couch. Rifat claimed in a statement he wrote following his arrest that he was working on a project in Rettner and due to the rainy weather, he decided to spend the night there. The second encounter was in the POA library in the B&L building where Rifat was studying.
Rifat did not understand why he was kicked off of campus, saying his ID still had access to academic buildings. He believed he was still enrolled in the University even though the University said in a report released after the arrest that Rifat was a “former student.”
Rifat said he felt discriminated against by Officer Courbet and Captain Ross of DPS, and that when he tried to ask questions in order to understand his rights, the officers responded in an aggressive manner.
“[Officer Courbet] did not give any clear answers to any questions,” Rifat said. “He just kept shouting. It was obvious to me at this point that he takes my questions as trying to provoke him. Whenever I asked him questions, he gets more heated and shouts.”
After leaving campus grounds after the first incident in Rettner, Rifat alleged that Officer Courbet patrolled him for a few hours to make sure he stayed off campus. Later that day when Rifat tried to take a shortcut that was on campus to get to College Town, he claimed Officer Courbet “mov[ed] his wheels in an accelerating manner to prevent [him]” from going anywhere on campus.
In response to Rifat’s allegations, Fischer denied DPS targeting Rifat and claimed that DPS vehicles are constantly patrolling for safety reasons.
“DPS has regular vehicle patrols 24 hours a day looking out for the safety and security of our University community members, but we do not follow any individuals in the manner that Mr. Rifat suggests,” Fischer said. “We have a commitment to unbiased and equitable treatment of all University community members and require that our officers fulfill this duty when patrolling all of our University’s campuses.”
Rifat said that after DPS found Rifat in the POA library the next day, it confiscated his ID and removed him from campus.
“I was really annoyed. Like, they took me from my friend and threw me off campus,” Rifat said. “This was very disrespectful. So, I decided to peacefully protest and dance around the campus borders. They got annoyed and sent a Public Safety car.”
Senior Alperen Sirin recounted a confusing experience with DPS.
“I’ve personally talked with one of the public safety officers. He told me that Mohammed graduated and thus cannot be on campus,” Sirin wrote on Facebook. “There is a huge misunderstanding on his status and different parties have different information. I told him that he did not graduate and just took a leave. He told me that they were informed that he graduated.”
The third and final incident is what lead to Rifat’s arrest and Abdalrahman’s video. The two went to meet on the Residential Quad to head off campus together. Instead, they ran into Officer Courbet who explained to Rifat that this was the third incident and he would now be arrested for trespassing.
“He warned me in Rettner and warned me in the POA, but he didn’t give any clear reasons or answers, so I took it as threats and not warnings,” Rifat said.
Rifat pointed out another reason he felt discriminated against was that his friend, who recently graduated, was also not enrolled in summer classes and was walking around campus. Yet, when Rifat asked the officers why they were not arresting his friend for the same reasons as him, they gave no explanation.
At the DPS office, the department made Rifat sign a form that would ban him from campus. Then RPD took him into custody. Rifat’s friends outlined the complicated process that followed.
“Public Safety really weren’t helpful,” Feldsott said of attempting to find Rifat. “They called us to say that he was dropped off at the RPD Headquarters after we had already gotten him. It took a very long time for us to figure out where he was going […] no one was really informed. He doesn’t have family in the United States. The reason we were able to pick him up was because one of our friends decided just to drive to the county prison to see if he was there.”
Rifat now seeks a private apology from the University. He explained that the situation affected his relations with friends and made him uncomfortable and anxious, which caused him to lose his appetite for a few days. He plans to leave the school.
DPS has instituted a plan to improve how situations like Rifat’s can be better handled in the future. According to Fischer, this includes determining a plan of action with the Student Conduct Office person on-call for a “student (current or former) who appears to be accessing the campus without authorization, […] written guidance related to filming by students, faculty and guests, and additional training will be provided to all DPS personnel, and a […] written policy for determining campus access for students who are not currently enrolled.”
Dean of the College Jeff Runner will be working on the development of a written policy. Furthermore, a new ID card code may be developed to show a student’s enrollment status to DPS.