Thursday, December 5, 2013

I miss Barney Fife: Rice University police repeatedly beat suspected bicycle thief and Rice won't turn over records

I miss Barney Fife
Last week, a Houston television station aired a video showing Rice University police officers beating  a suspected bicycle thief while he was lying on the ground begging them to stop.  According to the Houston Chronicle, officers hit the man13 times in 20 seconds.

Did the Rice cops use excessive force? I can't say. The police maintain the suspect refused to be handcuffed and that they used the appropriate procedure to subdue him.

As of yesterday, Rice University refused to release the entire video of the arrest or the mug shot of the suspect. Rice claims it is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act because it is a private university. 

In an editorial that appeared on December 4th, The Houston Chronicle criticized Rice University's secrecy about the beating incident. "Police in a democratic society must be open to investigation, even if they work at a private university," the Chronicle argued.

The Chronicle pointed out that Rice gets millions of dollars in state funding and its students are eligible for state financial aid. The newspaper called on the Texas legislature to close the loophole in the Texas Public Information Act so that the law applies to private universities.

John Whitmire, a state senator from Houston, is also upset by Rice University's secrecy.  Whitmire threatened to make it harder for Rice to get public money. "One, watch what I do to their budget," Senator Whitmire was quoted as saying. "And two, watch what I do to their police department."

I agree with the Houston Chronicle and Senator Whitmire. Rice University, which receives millions of dollars in state and federal money, should not be able to shield its activities from public view simply because it is a private university. Rice should be subject to the Texas Public Information Act, just as state agencies are.

This incident is reminiscent of the pepper spray incident that took place at UC Davis in 2011. University police officers pepper sprayed nonthreatening students who were sitting on a sidewalk during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.  Linda Katehi, UC Davis president, apologized for the incident; and the university paid a million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by the victims.

But UC Davis never released information about what it did with Lieutenant John Pike, the chief offender in the pepper spray incident.  Pike left the university under undisclosed circumstances.

 I wish to make two points about the incidents that took place at Rice and UC Davis. First, as I have said before, every university that participates in the federal student loan program should operate in complete transparency, whether it is public and private.  It is time for a federal open records law that applies to all colleges that receive federal student-loan money.

Second, the Rice incident and the UC Davis pepper-spray incident may be an indication that our university police departments are slowly evolving from service agencies dedicated to protecting and assisting students to paramilitary organizations.  Was it necessary, after all, for UC Davis police officers to attack peaceful students while wearing riot gear?

Personally, I miss the good old days when campus police officers behaved a little more like Barney Fife and a little less like Robo Cop. 

UC Pepper-Spray Incident
Photo credit: Wayne Tilcock, Davis Enterprise


Editorial. Secret police: Footage of Rice  University officers beating a suspect raises serious questions. Houston Chronicle, December 4, 2013, p. B6.

Brian Rogers. Lack of police transparency in Rice arrest angers lawmaker. Houston Chronicle, December 3, 2013. Accessible at:

Tyler Kinkade. Lt. John Pike, UC Davis Pepper Spray Cop, No Longer Working at University. Huffington Post, August 10, 2013. Accessible at:


No comments:

Post a Comment