A divisive petition over a demoted public safety director

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This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.

A petition that circulated this summer, allegedly written by City University of New York system public safety officers, has caused divisions and distrust among the officers and staff and faculty of color at Queens College.

The petition protests the recent demotion of the former campus director of public safety, Anastasia Koutsidis, claiming she lost her position in June, after less than a year and a half on the job, because an “African American ‘Woke Woman’” cast her as a “racist” to the college president. An original version of the petition named a specific staff member as the African American woman, though her name was later removed.

The petition also makes a series of accusations against Lieutenant Deborah Huggins, the new interim public safety director, who is a Black woman. It claims she made “derogatory remarks” about colleagues of other races. The alleged comments included calling a Latino officer a “house rat” and using a racial slur in reference to Queens College president Frank Wu.

“President Wu felt the need to replace a highly qualified Non-Racist White Face with an Unqualified Bigot Black Face,” the petition reads.

Some staff members, particularly Black employees, found the racialized language in the petition threatening amid broader racial tensions on and off campus and say they no longer trust public safety officers at the college. Koutsidis, while uncomfortable with the petition on her behalf, felt it raised valid points about her abrupt demotion to sergeant and problems in the public safety department that preceded her tenure. Some current and former public safety officers defended the petition as a way to support their former boss, whom they believe was unfairly maligned without explanation and whom they credit for combating a toxic culture within the department.

A Queens College spokesperson said college officials, including Huggins, could not comment on the petition because it “involves personnel matters.”

‘This Is a Dog Whistle’

The original version of the petition places blame for the demotion on Norka Blackman-Richards, who directs the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program, a scholarship and academic support program created to recruit and retain low-income students of color.

Blackman-Richards is one of a group of faculty and staff members who have been embroiled in months of discussions with administrators and Koutsidis about how to respond to a racist vandalism incident in January. A message reading “KKK Lives!” and a swastika were found carved into a corkboard at Delany Hall, a building named for a Black former professor that houses the college’s Africana studies program, the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding (CERRU), and the SEEK program.

The petition, which has garnered over 500 signatures, alludes to the incident at Delany Hall. It claims Blackman-Richards tried to get Koutsidis fired for not taking the graffiti seriously enough and the college president caved to the demand.Delany Hall at Queens College surrounded by trees.

Blackman-Richards, who was traveling with family when the petition surfaced, said she found out about it from a coworker on the last day of her trip. She came home to a barrage of concerned messages from colleagues.

At a time of political polarization and increased racially motivated shootings across the country, her first thought was “Anyone could come and find me,” she said. “We were reading it, and we were like, this is a dog whistle. Any crazy person … could just decide to drive up on campus and teach me a lesson.”

She filed a formal complaint about the petition earlier this month requesting a public safety escort to and from Delany Hall, but hasn’t heard back about her request. Despite the petition, she believes it’s campus officers’ job to protect her.

David Gerwin, then chair of the Queens College chapter of the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s employee union, also filed a workplace violence report on June 17 after receiving alarmed emails from Blackman-Richards and others about the petition, among other concerns. (The report also noted that another employee had allegedly seen Koutsidis in Delany Hall after she was believed to have been banned from the building. However, the employee later reported that she was unsure it was Koutsidis, and Koutsidis said she hasn’t visited the building since May.)

He said workplace violence generally refers to one employee threatening to physically harm another, but after a rash of bomb threats on historically Black college campuses and a surge of gun violence incidents nationally, it’s much harder to discern “what seems to pose a threat of imminent violence.”

This petition “can spread on social media in five seconds,” he said. Nothing could happen or “the next thing you know is someone in Idaho can grab their … AK-47 and decide to investigate what’s going on at Queens College.” That possibility is why the petition made some feel “radically unsafe.”

‘I Don’t Understand What’s Happening’

Multiple people, including Koutsidis herself, said they were frustrated by what felt like a lack of transparency by campus officials on the demotion and the workplace violence investigation.

Gerwin noted that there was no public comment made by campus leaders about the petition, despite its racial language and reference to Blackman-Richards, and no announcement that Koutsidis had been replaced, only an email on June 15 from Huggins promising to do a “listening tour” on campus.

Koutsidis said it was a “shock” to her when she received notice on June 8 that she’d be officially demoted two days later for “unsatisfactory work performance,” without any further explanation. She was also told in an email from a campus official on June 21 that she could not come to the campus without permission and could not enter Delany Hall because she was under investigation. A month later, she received another email that the restrictions were lifted. She was told the investigation had been pertaining to a visit she allegedly made to Delany Hall and that no further investigation was warranted. She received no additional details.

“I don’t understand what’s happening, and nobody is giving me any information to tell me what’s happening,” she said. “If you’re going to accuse me of something, you should at least be telling me what the accusations are so I can prepare a proper defense if needed.”

Koutsidis, who has worked in public safety on CUNY campuses since 1998 and became director of public safety at Queens College last year, believes her demotion was directly related to the Delany Hall incident. But she’s not certain what really happened and says she was deeply uncomfortable with Blackman-Richards being singled out in the petition and was glad her name was removed.

She said her demotion to sergeant will mean a salary cut of more than $70,000. Her colleagues started a GoFundMe page to raise money to help pay her expenses.

“I’m a single mother who helps support my parents and my sister who live near me,” she said. “This was going to create a massive hardship that would have this trickle effect of, you know, if I don’t pay my bills, I could possibly go into default on my mortgage and lose my car and things like that.”

Koutsidis opted to take some vacation time to plan her next steps rather than work under Huggins.

“There’s absolutely no way that I’m going to go work at a campus that demoted me with no cause and work for a person who worked for me the day before,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense. That creates a hostile work environment. I’m not doing that.”

While she thought the petition raised valid concerns, she said she wasn’t comfortable with the “racial aspect.”

“I grew up in Corona, Queens,” she said. “I didn’t come from money. I didn’t live in a rich neighborhood. I’ve never seen Black or white. I don’t care what color you are. As long as you’re a good person, I could care less. I have friends from everywhere in the world and then some.”

However, she believes campus leaders made her demotion a racial issue. A day before she lost her director title, Wu, the campus president, reportedly gave a speech to public safety officers about diversity, equity and inclusion in which he mentioned Huggins’s promotion.

Koutsidis said minorities make up the majority of public safety staff at Queens College and within the CUNY system as a whole. The department of public safety at Queens College, which typically employs roughly 50 people, is currently 90 percent people of color, according to a college spokesperson. Koutsidis also added that she’s Italian American, which she referred to as a “protected class.”

“He made it appear as if it was racial,” she said of Wu’s comments.

A ‘Hostile Environment’

Manuel Torres, who worked as a campus peace officer under Koutsidis for about six months before leaving to join the New York City Police Department, “immediately” signed the petition on Koutsidis’s behalf. He said he’s the officer Huggins referred to as a “house rat” for spending time in the office.

“Anastasia, for what little time I worked under her, she did an amazing job,” he said. “She earned my respect time and time again. I definitely thought she treated people correctly and gave people respect.”

He believes lieutenants, and especially Huggins, created a “negative culture” in the department by frequently penalizing officers and making disparaging remarks about them. He described the public safety office as a place where officers were afraid to make complaints about lieutenants for fear of retaliation. He said the environment started to improve under Koutsidis, but by then, he had already decided to leave the department.

“During my time there, I was made to feel uncomfortable doing my job, basically,” he said. The culture was “one of poor morale, one where people felt like they couldn’t speak up, they had to take abuse … Definitely I felt like there was kind of a reward system for joining in on gossip and talking bad about people, and that was how you got on certain people’s good side. It made it more comfortable for you.”

An employee at Queens College, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, agreed that “bullying” has historically been pervasive in the public safety department. The employee said supervisors regularly put down officers and threaten to write them up for minor offenses, and cliques form based on who gets along with public safety leaders.

“It was more of a hostile environment, and the officers were completely afraid of management and supervisors,” the employee said. In contrast, Koutsidis introduced new professional development opportunities and trainings for officers and focused on “community policing,” encouraging officers to set up a table on campus to engage with the students.

Neither the employee nor Torres were especially troubled by the racialized language in the petition.

“I felt like it was trying to undo something that wasn’t right,” Torres said.

Lingering Distrust

Tensions between campus public safety officers and students and sometimes faculty and staff members have a long history in the U.S., going back to campus officers putting down student free speech protests and other protest movements in the 1960s, but the issue has garnered renewed attention in recent years, said Jude Paul Matias Dizon, an assistant professor of higher education at Rutgers University. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, spurred Black student activists across the country to propose reforms to campus policing, such as requiring offers to wear body cameras and receive implicit bias training. The killing of George Floyd in 2020 also prompted calls by student activists for the “abolition” or scaling back of campus police departments.

Dizon did a case study for his doctoral dissertation in which he interviewed 135 campus officers, students, faculty and staff members at an unnamed university about the role of policing on campus. Like at Queens College, the majority of the officers in his case study were people of color.

Nonetheless, “although there was a claim from the campus police that they serve all members of the campus equally, for students, staff and faculty, there was a strong, consistent perception that the protection and benefits of policing ultimately is geared toward a privileged subset of the university”—that is, white students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

He also found students, faculty and staff members were more likely to see issues regarding racism and sexism and “psychological well-being” as a part of campus safety, whereas officers often thought of safety in terms of “physical safety, crime protection and crime reduction.” He said this disconnect was especially felt by students and staff of color.

Dizon believes tensions between campus police and students, faculty and staff can’t be fixed by simple reforms such as modifying uniforms to appear less intimidating, as some campuses have done. Efforts to improve these situations should be driven by senior leadership, he said.

The anonymous employee at Queens College said some public safety officers are now wary about entering Delany Hall after Koutsidis’s demotion because they don’t trust the people who work there.

The distrust is mutual.

Aysa Gray, interim director of CERRU, said it seems like a “conflict of interest” that the same people tasked with protecting Delany Hall previously singled out one of its occupants in a petition.

She also noted that other recent racial incidents have put her and her colleagues on edge and underscored their concerns about their safety on campus. For example, Gray received a message this month from “some made up email” that called her a “cunt” and “an affirmative action hire,” among other insults.

Natanya Duncan, director of Africana studies and an associate professor of history at Queens College, received an anonymous, threatening phone call on her cellphone in January, the same month as the graffiti was discovered, calling her a “bitch” and using a racial slur.

“Where Delany is concerned, people are scared to call the campus police because we’re not sure who might be responding or not responding,” Duncan said. “I personally am nervous that they’ve been conditioned to think a certain way about the incident and about the people involved, and so some, not all but some, might just be like, ‘Oh here they go again’ … and that leaves us open to all kinds of dangers.”

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