Burwell: ‘All credible leads have been exhausted’ in May 2017 banana incident investigation

Announcement comes nearly a year since hate crime rocked American University

Burwell: ‘All credible leads have been exhausted’ in May 2017 banana incident investigation

The new Public Safety building on East Campus. 

Nearly one year after a hate crime rocked American University’s campus, University President Sylvia Burwell announced in a memo on Friday that “no suspect has been identified in the case” and that “all credible leads have been exhausted” in the investigation.

“I know this is disappointing,” Burwell said in the memo. “I recognize the anger and grief that many experienced because of this traumatic event and understand that this is not the outcome we hoped for. We must create our own path to healing as a community.”

The announcement comes days before the first anniversary of the hate crime, which targeted Taylor Dumpson, the first black female student government president, her historically African-American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Incorporated, and the broader black community. Bananas, some of which were marked with the letters “AKA” and “Harambe,” were found hanging from string tied in the shape of nooses on May 1, 2017, sparking national media coverage and days of protests led by black students.

The AU Police Department is the lead agency on the investigation, with the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI and Metropolitan Police Department, Phillip Morse, assistant vice president of University Police Services and Emergency Management, told The Eagle this semester. They have been working with these partners since May 2017.

Even though all credible leads have been exhausted, the case remains open, university spokesperson Mark Story said. Burwell noted in her memo that “if someone comes forward with additional information, it will be investigated.”

The executive board of AU Student Government, including president Yamillet Payano, vice president Solomon Self, comptroller Christine Machovec and secretary Kris Schneider, echoed the disappointment in the outcome of the investigation. 

“It is unfortunate that the perpetrator in this case has not been brought to justice, but it’s also important to recognize all that has been achieved over the past year as a community -- without this justice,” they said in a statement. 

Burwell’s announcement marked the University’s first communication on the status of the case since December, when Burwell mentioned the investigation in a holiday memo. On May 2, AUPD released two videos depicting a person of interest in the case. Since then, AU police have not identified a suspect or made an arrest, though the department continued to work on the investigation with its partner agencies and update Burwell, Morse said.

In the months following the hate crime, campus security has been a hot topic of discussion among students, faculty and administrators. Since May, multiple flyers — targeting African-Americans, immigrants and Jews — have been posted on or near campus.

AUPD has increased its surveillance efforts on campus in the hopes of preventing similar incidents. Entrance to the Mary Graydon Center between midnight and 6 a.m. now requires a valid AU ID. AUPD also continually meets with members of the AU community, Morse said. For example, officers meet regularly with residence hall staff to build relationships with them. As of March 2018, in the past 13 months, AUPD had “spotted, stopped and barred” 54 people from campus for reasons “related to safety and security,” Morse said via email.

AUPD’s efforts have not come without criticism. The arrest of a graduate student for unlawful entry in March sparked a student outcry over AUPD’s policies and interactions with students.

In the past year, Burwell said the University has “taken important steps” to address public safety as well as launched a diversity and inclusion plan to improve AU’s campus climate.

“Colleges and universities continue to be targets of hate,” she wrote. “American University will respond, unified, with resilience and determination to pursue our goals.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Burwell communicated about the hate crime investigation in a December memo. 

hsamsel@theeagleonline.com and crozen@theeagleonline.com

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