When it comes to crime, sometimes what side of the street you’re on makes all the difference.
That’s the case in D.C., where private college police forces like GW’s have the power to rule on campuses, but are allowed to keep crime details under lock and key.
The Metropolitan Police Department enforces law and order throughout all of D.C., but is required by law to submit public crime reports that allow anyone to scrutinize its work and piece together what exactly happened.
Now, GW wants to go across the street – into MPD’s territory – and take on public responsibility. But they don’t want to accept public accountability.
The University Police Department and other college police squads in the District want to expand their power without playing by the same rules as the MPD.
University officials said they hope the D.C. Council takes up a bill this fall that would give colleges expanded jurisdiction to police beyond their campus boundaries, allowing officers to break up loud parties and collect GWorld numbers. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tentatively said he would support such a plan.
But no one in the District, including the D.C. Council, should welcome this proposal, especially without explicit legal conditions that would force college police forces to open their books.
The benefit of public crime records
Public disclosure helps create more secure communities. MPD provides detailed information on each crime in the District. Beyond a basic crime log, required by the federal Clery Act, UPD is not required to produce an official incident report – no names, descriptions or narratives.
This patchwork of information and culture of secrecy only creates insecurity. Students aren’t able to take safety precautions if they aren’t sure what precautions are necessary.
UPD has given some indication that it wants to provide clear, timely information by expanding email text alerts and providing some details each week in a brief and temporarily accessible crime log.
But UPD has a less-than-admirable history of keeping students in the loop, further decreasing their justification for expanding jurisdiction.
In September 2011, University police waited nearly six hours to send an email to students after learning about a man threatening to bring a gun to the GW Medical Center to “kill some doctors and patients.”
And as recently as last March, UPD’s secrecy caused speculation and uncertainty after officers took days to respond to questions surrounding drug and alcohol searches at Thurston Hall and residences on Townhouse Row.
The department also does not release its budget or campus patrol routes.
UPD should release open public records to earn the trust of the people it is charged with protecting, instead of persistently keeping students in the dark.
Enforcing off-campus crime?
UPD already has all the authority it needs to keep students safe. Existing laws give GW police the authority to pursue a criminal fleeing off campus.
Pushing more officers into areas of Foggy Bottom not owned by GW would merely divert UPD members off campus instead of achieving their primary goal: keeping students on campus secure.
But according to GW’s top safety and security official, Darrell Darnell, student safety might not be the top goal, anyway.
“It would give us the authority – if we knocked on the door, we could ask for GWorld cards, and who’s in there, just like we do in our residence halls right now. And they would have to produce it,” Darnell said in defense of the new proposal.
This explanation makes it seem like UPD is focusing more on addressing the noise complaints brought about by Foggy Bottom residents than safety concerns on GW’s campus. With hundreds of major crimes like thefts and assaults on campus every year, UPD’s focus should be here.
This is an especially frustrating prospect after a summer of new polices that restrict student freedom but do nothing to promote student safety, including a mandate that juniors live on campus. These police actions, coupled with new plans to expand jurisdiction, are the latest examples of administrative overreach.
Precedent for legislation
The 1990 Clery Act requires all federally funded universities to disclose some police records in a crime log. Recent amendments, such as the mandate to release text alerts on recent crimes, only ensure more openness in university law enforcement.
But if D.C. does go forward with the GW-backed police proposal, it should follow other states in increasing the transparency of private police records even further.
State legislatures in Georgia and North Carolina recognized the importance of open records, pledging to revoke funding from university police departments – at both public and private schools – that fail to release detailed incident reports. These conditions are fair and logical: Campus police that are granted the authority to conduct arrests like public police departments must be held accountable in the same way.
Activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and The Student Press Law Center have expressed their dissatisfaction at the plan to expand UPD’s jurisdiction. District leaders should take their advice, and adjust city law so that it is commensurate with more transparent policing rules that keep the best interests of students at heart.