On Sept. 10, brief speculation about a police banquet held in an enclosed space on campus arose on the forum. When Chief of Campus Police Michael Kessie denied knowledge about the rumored banquet a few weeks later, discussion quickly died out without any further information. “Banquet” turned out to be the wrong term―an in-service police training event was planned for Oct. 12 in Sudakoff Conference Center, followed by an awards ceremony with 25 people in attendance. College employees as well as student leaders privately expressed concerns about the safety of this event in the wake of COVID-19 despite limited public knowledge, but Kessie did not postpone the event until a campus police staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 7.
The announcement that President Donal O’Shea sent on Oct. 8 to the student email list confirming the second on-campus case lines up with the cancellation of the police event. Even so, the circumstances of this event, the internal debate surrounding it and its eventual cancellation were not made clear to the general New College community as they were happening.
Pre-cancellation: What was this training event?
Since 2018, a police training event has happened on campus over the course of two days during fall break. According to Kessie, the event was open to campus police and local law enforcement, as well as the state attorney, members of the Florida Highway Patrol and members of the Florida Bureau of Investigation. The training consists of lectures on various topics, such as de-escalation training, team-building exercises and updates from the state attorney about threat assessments, death investigations, Title IX, Baker Acts and other related topics.
“This year we also included a nationally recognized speaker on ‘Managing Implicit Bias in Law Enforcement,’” Kessie added.
The major addition to this year’s in-service training was the inclusion of an awards ceremony. The ceremony would have recognized three officers for perfect attendance and eight officers for, as Kessie puts it, “four acts of lifesaving,” three of which involved using Naloxone―a medication that blocks the effects of opioids―for drug overdoses.
This year’s training was scheduled inside of Sudakoff, which has currently been sectioned off into five classrooms meant to hold a maximum of ten students and one professor each. For this reason, Director of Campus Space Scheduling Jeff Thomas had initially vetoed the event when a one-day version was proposed in June.
“At first, I told them that they couldn’t get in here because we’ve turned everything into classrooms,” Thomas said. “But it turns out they were going to do it [Oct. 12] which is the one day we have our fall break.”
Even without this event taking place while students were in the building for classes, the awards ceremony portion of the event would have exceeded the number of people who can safely gather on campus according to CDC guidelines.
“It is a closed event for anyone other than New College personnel, which are the cops, but they [were planning on] having their families here,” Thomas said.
Thomas said this year’s event was originally intended to be only in-service training involving 16 people. When the awards ceremony was added, that number grew to 25 to accommodate both family members of the officers and various other law enforcement leaders from the Manatee-Sarasota area who have shown support for the New College campus police in the past. The final number of attendants was approved by O’Shea and Vice President of Finance & Administration Christian Kinsley upon Thomas’s request.
“I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to do 25 people, so [I ran] that through Kinsley, who then ran it through O’Shea,” said Thomas. “I told them my objections, I told them my concerns. The number turned into 25 and the final count when I sent the thing out came back as 30. But I was told that 5 of the people [were] not coming, so it [was] back down to 25 people as they originally told me.”
During previous training events, snacks and lunch were provided at an open table. Instead, Thomas had negotiated to provide the officers with boxed lunches.
“I do not think that there should be an open table where people―I don’t care if they even have tongs―stand over [it] and get food,” Thomas said. “It should be individual boxes where every person gets their food and it’s been prepared already.”
Also, four student event assistants would have managed the event by operating the microphone and the projector. These students did not receive the training they would have otherwise completed if campus had not needed to shut down last March, so this would have been the first major event they operated for an evaluation. Kessie says that including student workers at this event was ultimately Thomas’s decision.
“Thomas was very helpful in setting the tables up so they would allow for social distancing,” Kessie said. “We also did not request the assistance of any students and if they were going to be there, that was up to [Thomas].”
Thomas said that regardless of his or his students’ personal or political opinions, the training event and awards ceremony would have been managed just like any other event.
“The people who work for me, they are told that you check your politics at the door,” Thomas said. “You’re not concerned about whether or not it’s something that they should be doing or shouldn’t be doing; you’re doing your job. When it’s over, if you’ve got something you need to say to somebody, feel free. But during the event, you treat them like any customer coming onto this campus.”
What was the internal debate?
Thomas says that the switch to boxed lunches had been cemented as of late August or early September, and that the guest list of 25 for the award ceremony portion had been confirmed as of Oct. 6. Even so, he expressed concerns with holding a large in-person event indoors, despite approval from O’Shea and Kinsley and the ability to enforce additional safety measures.
“I wanted to point out that we’re not having faculty meetings in person, we’re not having Board of Trustee meetings in person and we’re not having Board of Director meetings for the Foundation in person,” Thomas mentioned. “None of these things are happening in person, so now we have this event, which is happening in person, so I have a lot of concerns. They told me that I could run it the way I should for safety reasons and the police will comply.”
NCSA President and Catalyst copy editor Sofia Lombardi spoke to both Kinsley and Kessie as planning for the event was underway in order to voice similar concerns about the risk of holding the police training event in person.
“My main concern was the double standard it presented,” Lombardi explained. “Students aren’t really allowed to have large in person events, but we were going to host a large in person event for campus police along with food. I would have preferred the police training to be done virtually to ensure maximum safety.”
While the decision was ultimately out of Lombardi’s hands, both she and Kinsley describe having discussions about the event in an attempt to find middle ground. Kinsley, who was meant to attend the awards ceremony portion, felt that the event was necessary to hold in order to recognize the campus police’s work.
“[Lombardi] expressed her viewpoint, which I would summarize as she thought it was a risky event, given COVID-19,” Kinsley said. “I expressed my viewpoint―I thought we were doing everything we could to mitigate the risk and that it was an important event to recognize campus police when they’re doing the right thing. We essentially agreed to disagree on the value of the event.”
Safety precautions aside, Lombardi believed there would be student backlash once the event was made fully public. On the other hand, Kessie did not believe there would be backlash for an event that would commemorate officers for saving lives.
“I did not think there would be student backlash when we are training to better protect our community and honoring those who saved the lives of local residents,” Kessie said. “By the way, no one checked the age, race, origin, or gender of any of the folks they [the officers] saved or tried to save. They were not concerned, nor did they judge the people that were dying from a drug overdose. The only thing they did was try to save the person’s life to give them another day to live and love their family and friends.”
In the end, it was not student backlash or persuasion by anyone with conflicting opinions that prompted Kessie to postpone the police training event. Instead, it was something―if the event had continued as planned―that could have proved disastrous: a campus police staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
Post-cancellation: What happens now?
Kessie cancelled the event “around 6 or 7 p.m.” on Oct. 7, Kinsley said, about five days before it was scheduled. This was the first reported COVID-19 case among staff or faculty and the second confirmed case on campus since the start of the academic year.
“This staff member had not been in the police building since Oct. 1 and did not regularly engage with students,” Kessie said. “In an abundance of caution, I cancelled the event and tested any staff members who may have been in contact with the positive member.”
Five other police staff members, including Kessie, all tested negative in the week following the cancellation of the training event. Kessie also said that all police equipment and the building have been cleaned at no cost to the college through a COVID-19 grant from the Department of Justice.
While Kinsley was prepared to hold the police training event, he also says that cancelling it was ultimately the right decision in the wake of this new information.
“I think we did the right thing on both counts, before and after,” Kinsley said. “But I wish I could say more. I feel like college administration is doing our best to make the correct decisions―to make hard decisions.”
On that note, Kinsley also says that while the police training event has not been rescheduled yet, it is likely to be revisited sometime after this semester. Kessie confirmed and said that it will be held in 2021, but no exact date has been determined.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Kinsley said about the current state of the event. “It’s safe to say that it’s not going to get rescheduled for [this] fall. We’ll have to revisit [it] when it gets rescheduled, but it won’t be [in the] fall.”
It is not yet clear how much of what was planned for this year’s police training event will still happen in 2021―if the awards ceremony portion will still happen, if the event will still be held in Sudakoff or indoors, and perhaps most importantly, if the guest list of 25 still stands. Lombardi believes that the best way to move forward with the event is to move it online.
“I think the training and the event should be moved fully virtual and we should limit outside guests as much as possible,” Lombardi said. “I know it’s disappointing to not have normal events at the moment, but I think it’s the safest thing to do and the right thing to do in this scenario.”