University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace Loh said in a campus-wide email Thursday that a recent incident in which campus police are accused of using excessive force against black students underscores the need for creating a "culture of inclusive excellence, where everyone feels a sense of belonging and security."
University police used pepper spray to break up a party Saturday morning of mostly black students at an off-campus student housing complex. Police said they were responding to a report of fighting and that they were told a student had a baseball bat.
Videos of the scene were shared widely, with some students accusing campus police of racial bias. Loh has asked for a thorough investigation and pledged that the findings and evidence will be made public once it's complete.
"This incident compels us to confront the reality that African-Americans, and other persons of color, experience bias and unequal treatment in everyday life," Loh wrote.
He said he had met with some of the students who were at the party who shared with him their "anguish, anger, fear, and trauma."
"Diversity is essential to the mission of our University. It is a matter of enormous pride for me," Loh wrote. "However, when some members of our community are hurting and feeling vulnerable, the entire University community suffers.
"We must ask difficult questions of ourselves as our nation continues its journey to form a more just and inclusive union. This past semester, the University held nearly 100 Maryland Dialogues events to confront issues of race and racism. I am pleased that campus leaders, including [UM Police Chief David] Mitchell, are engaged in conversations with students affected by this incident.
"I ask that we all continue working together to create a campus culture of inclusive excellence, where everyone feels a sense of belonging and security, and is valued, trusted, and respected."
Crystal Brown, a university spokeswoman, said Loh had nothing to add Thursday about measures the university would take to promote inclusion, but said such information could be forthcoming.
The campus officers were responding around 1:45 a.m. Saturday to complaints of a "loud party and a possible fight" at an apartment building in the 8500 block of Boteler Lane. They were told that a fight was going on inside and that someone "may have had a baseball bat," according to police. Police used pepper spray twice, once when an officer was surrounded in a hallway and a second time during a "confrontation" in the parking lot.
Mitchell, the police chief, also released a statement Thursday acknowledging the incident caused "distress and anguish" among students and others in the community. The investigation could take up to a month to complete, he said.
The department has only deployed pepper spray 10 times in the last five years, Mitchell said. He pledged to meet with any student who was concerned about the incident.
"This incident is especially painful because of the issues that are roiling nationally with respect to racial profiling and police misconduct," Mitchell wrote. "UMPD is committed to equity and fairness in all of our interactions with our vibrant and diverse community. We will continue to work diligently toward this end."
Representatives of the university's Black Student Union could not be reached for comment.
"We are handling the situation, but have chosen not to speak with the media at this time," the group wrote on its Twitter page.
Katherine Swanson, the student government association president, said she has been meeting with Mitchell about the situation and found him open to hearing her concerns. Students have been outraged uniformly, she said.
"When it first happened, I think a lot of people were really shocked," Swanson said. "Almost everyone seemed to feel the same way. There were people from white fraternities saying, 'This doesn't happen at our parties.'"
Swanson said she appreciated Loh's email but hoped action would follow.
"I do have faith in him and Chief Mitchell that they will do something," she said. "It can't end here; it can't end with an email."