After class Monday, Rowan University senior Altaif Hassan was giving his friend Giavanna Roberson a ride to the student center when he noticed that a police cruiser had pulled in the parking lot behind him, blue lights flashing.
He stopped the car and looked in his mirror.
“He had his gun aimed at me,” Hassan, 21, said Tuesday, recounting the chilling moment from the day before. Sitting in front of the student center with Roberson, he made the shape of a gun with his hands and pointed it, his arms stretched out in front of him.
A university spokesman said a 911 caller reporting an armed robbery had described a car similar to Hassan’s, which prompted police to stop him and act as though he or Roberson, 18, had a gun.
No weapon was found, but the hour-plus ordeal terrified and humiliated Hassan and Roberson, caused alarm on campus and left some students feeling that it was a race-related overreaction that put lives at risk. Shortly after, the university sent a brief notice to students about what happened, and then videos of the incident on the busy campus were shared widely on social media.
Rowan really on some shit pic.twitter.com/oRblQC87WE
— stefan (@_StefanHenry) 1 October 2018
In an interview Tuesday, Hassan, a biology major, and Roberson, 18, a freshman studying nursing, recounted how they immediately held their hands out the windows of the car as police shouted instructions and more arrived and pulled their guns, including one that appeared to be an assault rifle.
Hassan, fearing that police would see his phone in his lap and think it was a gun, threw it on the floor of the car.
They ordered Hassan out of the car first and had him put his hands up and walk backwards towards them.
“I was never so sure I was gonna die,” he said. His mind was in overdrive, worrying that he might twitch and they would feel threatened and shoot him.
“To not be able to see what’s going on,” he said. “What if I trip? Boom. I’m shot.”
Meanwhile, inside the car, Roberson was still holding her hands out the window — and praying.
“I was praying that ‘Taif didn’t trip or anything,” she said. She said she was more worried about him than for herself, thinking that police would feel more threatened by a male.
The pair said they could not figure out why they were being treated that way, and none of the many officers gave them any clues. Asked if he assumed it was a case of mistaken identity, Hassan said, “I would think that, but I’ve been getting pulled over since I was a freshman.”
The Trenton-native said that after he started at Rowan, both Rowan and Glassboro police have been pulling him over dozens of times each year. They always have a minor excuse for stopping him, he said, and sometimes they want to search the car, which he always allows.
“Maybe it’s the way I look. Maybe it’s my race. I’ve never seen them do that to white people,” he said.
On Monday, officers asked each of them if there was a gun in the car, but mostly did not speak to Hassan, he said. Roberson eventually overheard an officer say why they stopped the car. Hassan said he was sitting in a cruiser for nearly 45 minutes before he overheard a police scanner saying that someone with a gun was reportedly driving a car like his.
When he was finally uncuffed and released, no one apologized or explained anything, he said.
Glassboro police did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Joe Cardona, Rowan’s vice president for University Relations, said police “followed protocol” given that they believed the car was the one from the armed robbery and that its occupants might be armed.
Cardona acknowledged that the experience was awful for the students and said the university had offered counseling. “We’re moving forward from here. There’s probably going to be some open meetings about it,” he said.
On campus Tuesday afternoon, students who talked with a reporter said they had seen the videos and gotten the university alert about the incident. Several said they felt that police should have done more to confirm they had the right car, and that the number of guns being pointed was an overreaction.
Two other students said that they understood it was a scary situation, but they felt that the police were taking appropriate precautions given that they believed they might be facing someone with a gun.
Roberson called the experience “traumatizing” and said its made her feel unsafe on campus.
“My little sisters always come here, and they could have easily been in the car with us,” she said.
Hassan held out his hands, showing fingernails bitten down to the quick, and said he was biting them all night because he was a nervous wreck after the incident Monday.
“I’m trying to figure out what it is going to take for this to never happen again,” he said. “No one should be in that position.”
He reached out to Student Body President Rbrey Singleton, who helped arrange a meeting Tuesday with the dean of students and the head of Rowan University Public Safety. Roberson and Hassan said it felt good to be listened to, but they’re not sure much will change.
“It’s not just us, a lot of other students have experienced the same with cops,” Hassan said, referring to run-ins with police they felt were motivated partly by racial bias. “I hope they do protest and all the people who’ve had these experiences come forward.”
At the Social Justice Office Tuesday afternoon, student Imani Saunders recounted how videos of the incident spread on Instagram, with many students reacting with disbelief and calling for action. Like Hassan, she said there is a feeling that students of color are treated differently by local police, including increased police presence at their social events.
“As student body president I am deeply concerned about how the situation was handled,” Singleton said Tuesday. “No Rowan student should come to campus worried about looking down the barrel of a long gun.”
His second concern, he said, was that more than just the two students were at risk, given how crowded the area was with students while guns were being pointed.
He said he has been hearing complaints from students about their dealings with Glassboro police prior to this, and the Student Government Association was planning to reach out to the borough about “strengthening relationships.”
“This event is prompting us to move a lot faster on that front,” he said
He said the Student Government Association and the Social Justice Office are tentatively planning a town hall meeting Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Saunders said other student activists are planning a protest, which may take place Wednesday or Thursday.