Jake Sherman: What you don’t know can hurt you

Last year, the off-campus fraternity Alpha Pi Epsilon was the target of a major University Police Department shakedown. GW had been looking to stifle the organization for many years, reportedly concerned about students’ well-being during a rigorous and sometimes dangerous pledging process.

In a room raid, one officer confiscated a student’s prescribed Xanax, leading to the sophomore’s overdosing on sleeping pills, which landed him in the intensive care unit at GW Hospital. Computers and cell phones were also confiscated, students in the group said (“University busts APES leaders,” p. 1, Dec. 3, 2007).

By practice, a spokesperson said, the University does not confiscate prescription medication. So how did this mistake happen? How did a UPD officer go about this room search? What happened while he or she was in there? APES members said they were treated unfairly. If the Metropolitan Police Department were involved, journalists and the public could confirm or dispel the APES students’ claims. The process would be transparent. Any citizen could head to the police station and get an incident report, which would detail the raid from the MPD officer’s point of view.

UPD barely commented on this incident. And their reports exist but are not made public. They operate behind a layer of secrecy, and their methods are completely consequence-free.

If UPD has such wide-reaching jurisdiction in Foggy Bottom, shouldn’t its constituents understand the intricacies of its inner workings? If I were still a GW student, I would be frightened beyond belief at the prospect of this agency getting guns, unless there is serious change in its public disclosure policies.

There have been plenty of incidents at GW that have caused alarm among students. A rash of suicides in 2003, the Thurston fire in 2004 and spats of racism across campus come to mind.

But since I first became an observer of the University in 2004, nothing has alarmed me as much as UPD’s consideration of arming its officers with deadly weapons. For many reasons, beginning chiefly with the leadership of GW’s police force, Foggy Bottom is nowhere near ready for officers strolling the streets with lethal weapons strapped to their waists.

In truth, it is really remarkable. UPD and other campus rule enforcement agencies have largely escaped public scrutiny. They act as a commissioned arm of MPD but don’t play by the same rules as real police officers. For this reason and others, it would be a stretch to call them a law enforcement body. They actually don’t follow the law – searching rooms and monitoring e-mails are two exceptions that come to mind.

Dolores Stafford, UPD’s chief, is an expert on campus policing. She has been recognized as such and I have not. But through four years of reporting and extensive interviews with Stafford, I believe this department is far from ready to accept the responsibilities that come with the ability to kill.

In a contribution to this page on Nov. 24, Stafford ticked off the reasons why UPD should be trusted on campus: They conduct citizen surveys and train their officers for hundreds of hours before allowing them in residence halls on campus. They are “talented, well-educated, highly trained and thoughtful,” she said (“UPD is committed to professionalism,” p. 4).

If they are as qualified as Stafford claims, disclosing their methods should not be a problem. Stafford’s reasoning for keeping the records private, as she enumerated in interviews for a piece I wrote for The Hatchet in March of this year, is that UPD disciplinary records do not appear on your permanent criminal record (“Records closed: UPD reports are closed for public inspection,” p. 1, March 10).

So students’ names are not released – perhaps to protect the mistakes they make in college – but neither are the methods of the officers.

But consider this: If an armed officer draws his weapon, this goes beyond the University cracking down on an off-campus fraternity or protecting an alcohol violation. This is a matter of life and death.

From the classroom to the residence halls, the relationship between the University and its students is one of trust. If UPD officers are to be entrusted with the ability to carry weapons, they should do what most armed police forces in the world do. They should be honest with students and give them a full window into UPD’s policies and procedures.

The author, a master’s candidate in journalism at Columbia University, was The Hatchet’s 2007-2008 editor-in-chief.

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