Sam Collins: Transparency in UPD misconduct cases

When the University created an alcohol consequence flow chart in October, it improved transparency within its judicial process. But actual enforcement of these policies is carried out by on-the-ground units – political-science scholars call them “street bureaucrats” – whose actions are often overlooked.

In GW’s case, these street bureaucrats are the University Police officers.

The University must establish a more transparent investigation process to ensure the University Police Department is held accountable when it comes to student and officer interactions.

After breaking up a party thrown by a student I spoke with, three UPD officers lined up the minors to gather their information. At certain times during the process, one officer allegedly yelled obscenities at the students and threatened to hurt them if they did not cooperate. The student filed a formal complaint with UPD, but was never formally told by University leadership what punishment, if any, the officers faced.

When a student files a complaint against a UPD officer, he or she will never know what became of that complaint because UPD’s union contract prohibits disclosure of investigations into misconduct claims.

This has not gone unchallenged at other private universities. When students at Harvard University petitioned the state courts for access to Harvard University Police Department records, they were denied. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that private entities are not subjected to the same transparency laws.

This is troubling, because a failure to address weak oversight and transparency in the behavior of UPD officers jeopardizes public trust and puts students in even more danger than alcohol and drugs could.

The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid to disclose information about crimes that happen on or near their campuses. This was created to ensure that campus police departments do not cover up campus crimes. Police misconduct is also a crime that must be addressed publicly. With a force of more than 100 uniformed officers commissioned by the D.C. government, it is imperative that UPD openly addresses allegations of officer misconduct.

Just because the University is a private institution does not mean it should have the means to cover up a potential crime.

UPD’s lack of transparency is not practiced across enforcement agencies, though; things are very different for anyone who is a victim of a D.C. Metropolitan Police officer’s misconduct.

After someone files a misconduct complaint, the D.C. Police Complaints Board, a D.C. government agency independent of the MPD, investigates police misconduct through the Office of Police Complaints. Every petition, regardless of the filer’s judicial standing, is worthy of investigation, according to Nykisha Cleveland, a public affairs representative for the Office of Police Complaints.

Depending on the complexity of the situation, Cleveland said people who file complaints within 45 days of an alleged misconduct can expect to know the outcome of their petitions within one to three months.

A student at GW can only dream of this reality.

Students should not feel voiceless against acts of misconduct by UPD officers. Regardless of whether or not the student violated the Student Code of Conduct, an officer’s failure to adhere to policy must be taken seriously, especially when a student’s judicial record is in jeopardy.

The review process for officer misconduct must be available to the student who files the complaint – if not to the public. It’s only right for the victim of misconduct to be alerted of developments in an investigation, or at least if there is one.

While it is ideal to have officers who truly care about student safety protecting our campus, that is sometimes not the case. Now is a better time than any for the University to show the student body that UPD works to benefit them and impose oversight that ensures the highest quality of conduct.

Sam Collins, a master’s student in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is a Hatchet columnist.

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