Before last fall, University Police Department officers didn’t hesitate to break up fights, knock on doors or write up intoxicated students a few blocks off campus.
That’s because for longer than UPD Chief Kevin Hay has been at GW, responding to off-campus incidents was a regular duty, according to interviews with two current officers.
“It was literally a rule in the police handbook, with our standard operating procedures, that said: ‘Go knock on doors’,” said one officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The private police force is not part of the Metropolitan Police Department fleet, and is technically not allowed to operate outside campus grounds unless chasing a suspect, even to bust parties thrown by GW students.
UPD had skirted that law until officers were reprimanded by the city last year. New accounts from officers show just how much GW’s top brass had stressed off-campus policing.
The University recently announced a plan to regain its off-campus authority, and this time it’s legal.
GW is banding together with 13 other schools to expand campus police jurisdiction, which would allow officers to take action off campus but hold onto their records. GW, the city’s largest university, has said it is looking to give UPD’s more than 100 uniformed officers the authority to crack down on loud parties and other incidents that may arise just beyond the campus line.
Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell said GW wants to see expanded jurisdiction – whether it’s “three blocks, five blocks or only to those houses where we have students” – so that officers can knock on doors and report students who violate the Student Code of Conduct.
For now, GW staff members will take on neighborhood patrolling duties, administrators told neighbors. But Hay said at a meeting with neighbors in July that the expanded jurisdiction would help the campus police deal with rowdy students.
“We believe being able to knock on the door while the party is in full force is the best way to go, because it will give you more immediate gratification,” he said. “That’s how we’d like to proceed – if we can get all other universities to join forces with us, we think we have a decent chance.”
Officers afraid to step outside jurisdiction
This expanded jurisdiction would put UPD back in line with its old policies, when officers went off campus almost every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, mostly to townhouses two blocks behind the Foggy Bottom Metro station. When officers received calls from local residents about noise, they would issue warnings to students and sometimes also to people unaffiliated with GW.
The two UPD officers interviewed said they never entered a home, but would sometimes ask students to hand over their GWorlds, though the officers weren’t sure what officials up the chain did with the information they collected.
D.C. officials began to catch on to the long-standing UPD practice last fall. MPD suspended two officers after they breached their authority in two separate incidents off campus.
The University quietly ignored the clash with the city, and announced a new policy to respond only to on-campus incidents this spring, then refused interviews with The Hatchet to explain the policy change.
A year later, officers say they still avoid confronting students or neighbors anywhere off campus grounds to avoid consequences from the city.
“Like, people were afraid to help people in the street who were stumbling or vomiting or – like, ‘Oh, there’s a fight in the street. Well, I can’t go’,” the first officer said.
UPD’s chief is still declining to talk about off-campus policies or how officers responded to noise complaints in the past.
“I don’t want to get into it a whole lot because we are trying to move forward with legislation,” Hay said in an interview this fall. “I don’t see it as being productive at this point.”
Starting to ‘look more like the MPD’
With a bill possibly heading to the D.C. Council after legislators return from their summer recess, legal experts say they are watching developments closely.
Robert Becker, an attorney and board member of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, said if a UPD officer knocked on the door of a student who lived off campus today, the student could turn the officer away.
“Because the student who lives off campus has the right to privacy, you have no obligation as an individual to talk to the police or to give your information,” said Becker, who was also a professor at GW.
He said municipal police forces, like MPD, must have “reasonable suspicion” that a person has committed a crime before they ask for an individual’s information. But Becker said if UPD, a special police force, began to operate like city police, he would expect officers to abide by the same benchmarks as local law enforcement.
The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, which includes GW, has not yet hashed out a specific policy or set a timetable for legislation. But if that effort moves forward, multiple civil rights and legal groups have said they’d try to strike down or alter the proposal.
“Depending on what they come up with as a bill, then there may be some room for negotiation, particularly when they have to deal with people off campus, because then they are beginning to look more like the MPD than the campus police,” Becker said.
‘A fully-fledged police department’
The first UPD officer said the push to expand jurisdiction goes back several years, when Dolores Stafford served as chief of the department and sought concurrent jurisdiction for D.C. colleges’ police departments.
“The bigger issue is we – not we as in GW, but the universities – have all been trying to get concurrent jurisdiction for years,” the first officer said, which “means being able to be a fully-fledged police department where we could go somewhere else and assist.”
This system would allow UPD officers to share jurisdiction with MPD, which has authority over public D.C. land.
UPD can enforce, arrest and carry weapons other than guns on GW’s campus, or off the grounds when chasing a suspect, under city law.
But campus police officers can also exert their authority in areas “immediately adjacent” to the property they are commissioned to protect, and the first UPD officer said the interpretation of this law has stirred controversy.
The first officer said the department operated under an “agreement” between University officials and neighbors that allowed the officers to respond to noise complaints and was meant to ease tensions with neighbors.
“Our administrators told us that MPD was aware of what we were doing, and they wanted us to go back there, and that was that, and that was what we did,” the second officer said.
The officer added: “The University would tell the residents back there that if they had problems with GW students, that they should call UPD, and they were never shy about doing that.”
Still, off-campus incidents were far from the top of the first officer’s priority list, especially without a weapon for self-defense.
“I have bigger fish to fry on campus. And that’s just kind of my personal view, but my focus was not off campus at all,” the officer said.
– Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.