Bates College fires a top campus safety officer for violating use-of-force policies

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Steve Collins, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
·5 min read
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Apr. 29—LEWISTON — Bates College fired a 25-year veteran campus safety officer for failing to follow rules on the use of force when he tackled and handcuffed a student in March who refused to identify himself, according to a preliminary report released this week by an outside investigator.

Lead Campus Safety Officer Dennis Skinner, who was suspended last month, said an investigator's report that led to his firing Tuesday left out a key part of the altercation. He said he never touched the student until the guy "pushed me and started running down the stairs" in a bid to flee the scene and escape punishment for breaking rules related to the pandemic.

In the summary report issued by a consultant hired by Bates, Sarah Worley, there is no mention of the first-year student shoving the officer. It said that after gathering the facts, Bates concluded Skinner "can no longer serve the institution" after serious violations of its policies.

Worley is not done probing Bates' campus safety department.

The investigator is looking into "broader concerns about the proper role of and performance by campus safety officers" at the liberal arts college, Carl Steidel, senior associate dean of students, said in an email to students Tuesday.

Steidel said the second phase of the report "is in progress and will be completed as quickly as possible." Worley's summary said it should be concluded by the end of the semester in May.

In the next phase of the report, Worley anticipates looking at "the proper function of campus safety as well as the particular relationship between campus safety and the BIPOC members of our community."

Issues involving campus safety treatment of Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the report said, "require further examination and deliberation by the college."

In conducting the first phase of the report, Worley spoke with three campus safety officers, including Skinner, and with nine students who witnessed the March 5 incident in Rand Hall that precipitated a crisis. Worley also reviewed police reports, video recordings and photographs to figure out what happened.

It began at 8:47 p.m. on a Friday when Skinner, referred to as Officer 1 in the report, "performed a routine walk-through at a residence hall."

In a second-floor lounge, he saw eight to 10 first-year students gathered, unmasked, playing Jenga, a game where participants build a tower out of wooden blocks and then take turns removing pieces one by one.

Some of the students were drinking alcohol, the report said, including "Student A" who had just arrived and was holding a can of beer when Skinner saw him.

As soon as Skinner entered the room, he walked directly to Student A and said, "Show me your ID."

As the officer questioned Student A, the others scattered in all directions. Student A sought to leave, too, moving toward an adjacent stairwell "in an effort to avoid" Skinner. But Skinner followed him.

Skinner said the student, who "refused to identify himself," told him his ID card was in his room. He agreed to follow the student to the room to see it, he said.

But when they got to a stairwell, Skinner said, the student "pushed me and started running down the stairs" to get away.

The investigator said in the report that Skinner "pursued him, tackling him in the stairwell in order to try to restrain him and to force him to provide identification."

"As the two of them struggled," the report said, Skinner "called for assistance on his radio" and then tried to handcuff the student "to prevent him from leaving."

Skinner said the student "put his hands on me first" so he sought to handcuff the student to keep him from doing so again.

He said the student "had every reason to push me" because he had broken so many COVID-related rules that he faced the likelihood of getting sent home for the rest of the semester if he was written up.

A second, unnamed officer responded within minutes to the scene and, at Skinner's direction, handcuffed the student.

A Lewiston police officer, also called to the scene for unclear reasons, arrived soon after and spoke with both Skinner and the student. When Skinner "made it clear that he did not want" the student arrested, the city officer removed the handcuffs and departed.

The student received minor injuries to his neck and wrist, the report said, but Skinner did not call for medical assistance.

Skinner violated policy with his use of physical force, his effort to handcuff the student and his failure to seek medical help for the student, the report said.

A number of recordings were given to the investigator from students and from the body camera worn by the Lewiston officer to help Worley sort out the events. The recordings were not made available to Bates, however.

Worley noted that as Skinner sought to detain Student A some classmates began taunting him in ways that were "highly offensive and disrespectful."

The student handcuffed by an officer, who has not been identified, told the student newspaper last month, "I would never wish another student to experience what I did last Friday night. The raw fear consuming me, the helplessness swallowing me — it lurks in me still. It feels like something completely apart from reality."

The report said that Student A violated four student conduct policies, including consuming alcohol, failing to wear a mask and socializing in a dorm where he did not live. He also failed to provide identification to campus security as required, Worley said.

"He violated all the rules," Skinner said. "And I guarantee you nothing's going to happen" to him.

"They're going to terminate me before they're going to terminate a student" paying more than $70,000-a-year to attend, Skinner said.

Other students also violated the public health agreement meant to thwart the spread of COVID-19, the report said, and by drinking alcohol. Some also made derogatory remarks to Skinner that violated the student conduct code.

Worley said Skinner "has been held accountable" for his failure to follow the rules.

"But the students' failure to abide by the college's community standards cannot be dismissed," Worley added. "We all deserve better from each other than the behaviors we saw on March 5."