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Sociology in the News

Sociology Department Responds to Recent Clery notification

Dear Chancellor Plowman, Chief Lane, Vice Chancellor Cimino, Vice Chancellor Small, and Ms. Paciello:

As members of the UT Department of Sociology, we write with utmost concern about the recent Clery notice concerning Ricky Jerome Smith. Many of us are criminologists, critical race, and sociolegal scholars. We conduct research on crime and justice processes. We also work routinely with students who pursue law enforcement work and have collaborated with campus safety efforts. We offer our expertise and guidance on the following issues.

·  Mr. Smith’s guilt was affirmed in the notice, and his photographic image was provided. Neither arrest nor prior record provide sufficient legal basis for present guilt. Due process and civil liberties protections are essential to justice at all times, and never more so than during a pandemic. The assumption of guilt followed by his “mugshot” is nothing less than a racialized dehumanization of Mr. Smith, who, regardless of what he allegedly did, remains a human being. Mr. Smith’s picture can be used to racially profile Black students, staff, and faculty which, as we know, already occurs on and off the UT campus. Research on the use of news images and mugshots establishes a longstanding, problematic association of blackness with criminality.

·  Beyond the imagery itself, the Clery notice goes on to conflate blackness, theft, and threat by joining Mr. Smith’s picture alongside the following text: “This morning, Thursday, April 16, the UT Police Department arrested Ricky Jerome Smith who was responsible for a number of thefts from administrative buildings on campus, as well as a theft of a motor vehicle, which has been recovered. Though the campus currently has a smaller population, theft continues to be a threat to campus safety.” Linking perceptions of threat with the racial imagery of blackness is dangerous to our campus community, Black students, staff, and faculty especially, where the UTPD has access to deadly, military-grade weaponry. Research shows that police killings are a leading cause of death for young Black men in the United States. Moreover, current bills being considered by the Tennessee State Legislature (e.g., HB 2102, HB2661, and SB 2288) will expand, if passed, access to concealed carry of a firearm on campus. Within a racial climate that links threats to campus safety with a black face, Clery notices like the one delivered last week normalize the conditions where black individuals are subjected to racial profiling and suspicion which can lethally endanger their health.

·  A review of all UT Clery Act notices sent last year indicates that the majority pertain to sexual assault where the assailant was known to the police. Not once was the word “threat” used in these past notices. That sexual violence is not referred to as a threat while theft is, sustains a general pattern of flippant response by campus police to violence against women, usually by men they know. If “theft continues to be a threat to campus safety,” we wonder what sexual violence is. It is well known that sexual assault cases are regularly both underreported and under-addressed institutionally. Part of the reason why victim survivors do not report these crimes to police is because of the re-traumatizing effects of the criminal justice system.

·  As scholars who study the effects of criminalization on communities of color, supported by our fellow faculty in a department that seeks social justice, we are appalled that Mr. Smith has been now branded as a repeat offender which only further stigmatizes and criminalizes his alleged actions. This response by the university goes against one of the core values that define the Vol spirit: advancing diversity and inclusion. Instead the university is pushing the wider community to stigmatize, criminalize and punish and we consider this unacceptable and a violation of the values we stand for.  

We question whether the UTPD is doing more harm than good by contributing to the demonization and maltreatment of men of color. The current, highly hazardous pandemic reminds us that grave dangers lurk elsewhere. In this instance, we are struck by the concern to protect property rather than the lives of our community members. Given the current health care crisis and what we know about those who are suffering, and dying, disproportionately, the UTPD’s designation of who and what threatens us in these times is nothing short of perverse.

We ask that UTPD immediately remove the photo, revise their policy on the release of photos, and issue a statement summarizing these efforts to the campus community.

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.