Christopher Gearhart wants to knock down the “us versus them” barriers on campus.
Along with his policing duties, the University Police Department corporal helps foster a relationship between his unit and the community it serves by stopping over at Thurston Hall at least once a each week to mingle with students as part of the Adopt-an-Officer Program.
“Being able to put a friendly face to our department makes us more approachable to the community,” Gearhart said. He joined UPD in 2001 and has participated in the program for about five years.
Adopt-an-Officer began in 1996 under former UPD Chief Dolores Stafford as an alternative to “reactive” policing, where officers respond to issues after the fact, the department’s current chief Kevin Hay said. With increased familiarity between officers and students, he hopes more individuals would feel comfortable reporting suspicious activities or individuals on campus before a crime occurs.
“What Adopt-an-Officer is, is GW’s version of community policing,” Hay said. “It’s a way to get out of the squad cars and into the hallways.”
As the program evolved, it has aligned with Hay’s focus on community policing as an added safety measure by encouraging students, staff and employees to remain vigilant. In a broad effort to enhance security, UPD began tightening access to residence halls last semester while calling for students to stay alert and report suspicious individuals.
“We just want a better free flow of information between officers and the community they serve,” Hay said. “Ultimately, the goal is to reduce crime.”
The clampdown on residence hall access came after two incidents of men piggybacking into buildings, allegedly attacking students in one case and attempting sexual assault in another.
Twelve officers have now opted into the program. The department collects data monthly from officers on the number of visits made to their assigned hall, residents they spoke with and events attended, like pizza parties or root beer pong parties.
Pizza parties are a staple of the initiative and attract crowds, Gearhart said. But he prefers an activity that connects sports fanaticism with community outreach: making signs as a basketball “pre-game.”
He admits socializing with cops “doesn’t necessarily make it cool,” but it gives students a substitute activity to drinking.
“I think that opens up doors for them, for friendships,” he said.
Over the years, house staff and officers have made strides in improving communication to coordinate their events to boost student attendance, Gearhart said. About 500 students – or about half of Thurston Hall – have adopted him, and he said it becomes difficult to engage others during the night shift – when students are studying, doing homework or “things they shouldn’t be doing.”
UPD Master Patrol Officer Stephen Gerber said officers serve as a main point of contact for students in times of need. Students he met at Adopt-an-Officer events have later approached him out of uniform, he added.
“Since it is impossible to know what crimes may have been prevented if it were not for the program, you cannot quantitatively describe the impact the program has on safety at GW,” he said. “I do think the program has increased student body’s willingness to report incidents to [UPD].”
Adopted officers often work with house staff to coordinate events, Gerber said, adding that officers who attend an event while off-duty might in some cases be paid overtime. The department typically gauges student involvement in the program through surveys in the spring.
UPD special officer Angela Galli, who also participates in the program and was adopted by Guthridge Hall, said officers meet house staff each summer at a luncheon to brainstorm ideas for activities, from self-defense training to anti-smoking dinners – strategies she said she prefers to simply approaching students in a residence hall.
“I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the Adopt-an-Officer program, getting to know the students and letting the students get to know that I’m a real person, not just someone trying to stop their fun,” Galli said.
Priya Anand contributed to this report