Following recent reports that accuse JJC Police Chief Pete Comanda of using racially insensitive remarks during a police department exercise and bullying tactics within the department, a number of student organizations have questioned his ability to continue to serve as police chief.
Representatives from Black Student Leadership Association, GLAM, Latinos Unidos, Muslims in America and Student Government addressed the college Board of Trustees on Feb. 26 to express their concerns, with Student Government President Sebastian Gonzales calling for Comanda and Board of Trustees Chairman Bob Wunderlich to resign.
Comanda was not present at the meeting, but he has denied the accusations in the past, including during an interview published Feb. 12 in The Blazer.
In a recent interview with The Blazer, Wunderlich said he was not surprised with the turnout at the meeting and supported the students using their voice to express their concerns, saying that is their “prerogative.”
However, he also responded to Gonzales’ call for his resignation.
“Under freedom of speech, that is certainly an option that he asks for both our resignations,” Wunderlich said. “I’m not going to resign.”
He also addressed concerns expressed by students regarding his quotes in a Jan. 15 Herald News article. In that article, he used the phrase “water under the bridge.” But Wunderlich said that the quote was taken out of context.
He said his comment about it being “water under the bridge,” which was cited by Gonzales in his address to the board, only referred to the investigation itself, not the alleged racially-based statements.
Wunderlich said that he is “very, very sensitive” about race relations and diversity and would never use that phrase in that context.
“As far as the water under the bridge comment, that was completely taken out of context. People who know me know that…I’m sorry if people took it the wrong way, but that’s not my fault.”
Wunderlich also said the board made the decision based on the information they had at the time of the investigation.
“We tried to balance everything… we thought we were doing the best that we could for the college and the students,” he said.
The first student to address the board was Vice President of Latinos Unidos David Lozano, who questioned whether the college is prioritizing students’ safety.
“By allowing Chief Comanda to walk around campus, when we are aware of his racial commentaries, tarnishes the notion that diversity is encouraged and kept safe here at JJC,” said Lozano. “How can minority students feel secure or that they will be treated fairly by the JJC Police Department if the man in charge of the department holds racial biases?”
He was followed to the microphone by GLAM Vice President Will Vanderhoff, who said he has begun to question whether the college is as safe for the LGBTQ+ community as he believed it was. He let the board know that LGBTQ+ people also live in fear every day for being themselves, just as minorities do, and students need to be assured that they are safe.
“I can’t say that it’s exactly the same as people who are discriminated against because of their skin color or their race,” Vanderhoff said. “But when we are openly and proudly ourselves, we face danger and discrimination like that…were we wrong to assume that we were safe here?”
Anfal Abdeljaber, speaking for the Muslim community on campus, told the Board of Trustees that they have failed all students with the decision to allow Comanda to continue to serve.
“We can’t let people get away with racist comments anymore,” she said. “The reason racism still exists today is because things like this are often overlooked, so the people with that mentality think it’s okay.”
Shannah Triplett spoke on behalf of BSLA and questioned the effectiveness of giving Comanda a performance improvement plan if the allegations were said to be substantiated.
“There is no training that one could receive that could measure the biases of an individual,” Triplett said. “That individual could mislead many on the effectiveness of such training.”
Gonzales presented to the board a petition signed by “at least” 150 students that called for transparency from the administration about the issue and for the resignation of both Comanda and Wunderlich. He said they collected the signatures in one day.
Gonzales acknowledged that he “has heard” that Comanda has done great things as chief, but said that that doesn’t excuse his behavior.
“If he’s capable of saying shocking statements, how do we know that Comanda’s intentions are to serve and protect and not to serve and protect who he sees (fit) to serve?” Gonzales said.
President of the faculty union, Bob Marcink, spoke on behalf of faculty and said that what the students are feeling is very real to them.
“I’m not saying they’re not being treated equally, but if people are walking around the halls, and they are fearful, that’s something we can’t tolerate as an institution,” he said.
Marcink assured students that they can feel safe walking into any faculty member’s office.
“Our offices are safe places. They’re places where students can come speak to us, and they don’t have to be concerned about [any] information going anywhere,” he said. “But they need to feel safe in the hallways too. They need to feel safe all-around campus.”
Wunderlich reaffirmed that students are the college’s top priority.
“We want to make sure that the students are and feel safe, and that they’re not afraid to speak their minds or walk the halls,” he said. “I know the climate in the college is very tense right now. The board is doing their very best to try to calm that down.”
He continued, “They are still taking another look at the different allegations to see if there’s anything we missed or didn’t come out in the investigation. As of right now, between the board and the administration, we felt that the performance improvement package was the right thing to do.”