The University Police Department will change off-campus response protocol after years of illegally operating outside its jurisdiction.
UPD is commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Department to enforce, arrest and carry weapons on GW-owned, operated and leased land and can only overstep those boundaries while chasing a suspect. But officers have been reprimanded by MPD in the last year for regularly exerting authority off campus, in some cases detaining students in a city park and knocking on townhouse doors after noise complaints.
“It has recently come to our attention that even the limited action by GW police officers of knocking on the doors of off campus residences where students may reside exceeds their authority,” University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard said Friday.
UPD Chief Kevin Hay declined to comment on the department’s policies regarding off-campus incidents, determining jurisdiction, how often officers are sent off campus or how far they typically travel. He also declined to discuss which types of off-campus cases officers receive calls for, when they respond or whether UPD has received complaints regarding off-campus action.
GW’s top security official, Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell, also declined to comment.
Two UPD officers have been suspended in the last year for asserting their authority off campus, violating city law.
Special police forces, like UPD, are “strictly confined to the particular place or property they are commissioned to protect,” according to D.C. law. Officers cannot “display a badge, weapon, or other evidence of authority” outside GW boundaries, and are also forbidden from wearing a uniform and identifying oneself as an officer off campus.
Officer Jeffrey Kerch was suspended for five days after he followed a car off campus in September and “became involved in a verbal altercation” with the driver and passenger, according to MPD documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. An investigator found that Kerch’s conduct was “unprofessional and lacked good customer service” and recommended the officer receive customer service training at his own expense.
Another UPD officer, whose name was redacted from the documents, was suspended for 20 days after he detained three male students in Triangle Park that month for association with suspected marijuana odor. One of the students then told the officer that the student had more marijuana in their Guthridge Hall room and that their roommate dealt drugs, and the officer conducted an administrative search of the room.
The investigator wrote that the officer’s action “clearly indicates” he was fully aware he “had no authority to stop or detain any person” on property under U.S. Park Police jurisdiction.
The issue of UPD jurisdiction surfaced last month after multiple neighbors complained to the University that UPD ignored their requests to quiet down a party at a townhouse rented by students.
Nearly two-thirds of all incidents reported to UPD last academic year were in townhouses, according to a University report. The total number of complaints dropped to 88 last academic year, down from 124 reports during the 2010-2011 school year.
The University might create other guidelines for responding to off-campus incidents, UPD assistant chief Frank Demes told neighbors last month. Lorraine Voles, the head of GW’s Office of External Relations, will meet with Foggy Bottom neighbors in May to hash out some of the possible alternatives.
A former UPD officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said when campus officers respond to incidents outside of campus boundaries, they act as a University official, not as an authority commissioned by the city.
He called the city laws outdated and cumbersome for forcing more duties onto MPD officers, rather than permitting officers to handle issues like noise complaints – which made up 90 percent of off-campus incidents reported to UPD last academic year. MPD cannot take action against noise complaints unless there are multiple complaints after 10 p.m., so he said officers are better suited to handle the cases because the University can act “almost immediately.”
“Why should the taxpayers of the District of Columbia be burdened with GW problems that GW is willing to handle?” he said. “Because that’s what we’re saying right now. We’re saying that city resources need to be diverted to GW problems when GW is sitting here going, ‘We’ll handle it’.”
When UPD responds to an incident, it does not release a public record of the case – unlike municipal police departments including MPD, which open reports for public viewing.
American University changed its off-campus policy in 2011, allowing public safety officers to report student misconduct off campus even if MPD does not respond to a complaint. The school could then use those reports to take disciplinary action.
The city’s noise laws ban “unreasonably loud noise between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. that is likely to annoy or disturb one or more other persons in their residences.” Breaking that law after receiving a verbal warning could land an offender fines up to $1,000, prison time up to 10 days or both.
UPD officers knock on students’ doors and request that they lower noise, “usually solved the problem,” longtime Foggy Bottom resident Kenneth Durham wrote on a community listserv. He added that the University would then file a report and keep track of repeat offenders.
Durham said neighbors did not know UPD could no longer knock on students’ doors until a dispatcher informed him when he called the department to lodge a complaint. He also said the University had asked neighbors for the past three years to first call UPD in the event of rowdy behavior because campus police could respond faster than MPD.
An online guide to off-campus living, published by the University, outlines D.C. policies on noise, but does not detail the steps taken by campus officers who field the complaints.
Foggy Bottom resident Marina Streznewski wrote in an email to UPD that neighbors are running out of patience.
“We need details and concrete information – in short, we need to know what to do at 3 a.m. when we cannot sleep because fraternity members who were kicked off campus hold large, loud parties,” she wrote. “Do we simply call 911 and have the District arrest the students who are, in fact, breaking the law?”
This article appeared in the April 22, 2013 issue of the Hatchet.