Failed decade-old D.C. Council bill shows roadblocks to expanding UPD power

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Elise Apelian

Sixteen University Police officers have been assaulted over the last two years, new data shows.

As a coalition of D.C. universities look to redraw boundaries for their campus police officers, they must overcome in-fighting over officer accountability that led to the bill’s failure 10 years ago.

An earlier proposal for an expansion of off-campus police power, introduced by several D.C. Council members in 2002 – including Foggy Bottom’s Council member Jack Evans – was more far-reaching than the one that the same group of District schools is now shaping to bring before the Council.

The 2002 bill would have granted campus police officers the same arrest powers as MPD. It also would have allowed the departments to share resources and radio frequencies, and would have made campus police accountable to citizen complaints through a city review board.

But opponents of the provision “believed that it was unwise to allow the delegation of the government’s police powers to a private entity,” according to a Council report. When the Council passed a general fire and police bill in June 2004, it included no mention of campus security officers.

Dolores Stafford, GW’s chief of police until 2010, led the charge then to expand campus police jurisdiction. The bill originally stated that campus police would be allowed on “any public street immediately adjacent to property owned, leased or controlled by a university.”

She said while the bill gained traction, with at least four schools initially giving support, several universities backed out at the 11th hour. GW was the only school to voice its support at both hearings. The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area supported the bill at its first hearing in October 2002, but did not speak at the second hearing in May 2003.

“We made great progress and I believe it would have passed the city council, but several universities came out against it after the hearing date was set and that changed the landscape of the issue,” Stafford said in an email this month.

The debates centered on how to delegate government police powers and whether the District should be liable for any errors by campus police officers while the two departments worked together.

But Stafford, who is now an independent campus safety consultant, said this month that she still supported the plan. The limited scope of UPD’s off-campus jurisdiction “unnecessarily ties up city resources.”

This summer, the University announced that it was crafting a proposal seeking “limited authority” for officers to act off campus and break up loud student parties.

“GW is not requesting arrest powers,” Renee McPhatter, assistant vice president of governmental relations, said at a community meeting in September. “We want to be able to enforce the Student Code of Conduct very narrowly.”

Eleven years ago, the bill’s opponents included the Foggy Bottom Association, the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington D.C.

“It is foolhardy, and possibly unlawful, for government to so delegate police authority,” Patrick Regan, a trial lawyer from the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington D.C., said then.

The universities also debated whether D.C. should be held liable for the negligence of campus police officers. D.C. would be “civilly liable for any action or inaction occurring pursuant to a cooperative agreement created,” according to the original bill.

This year’s bill also has its opponents.

The ACLU has warned that the group may raise questions about police forces exerting their authority beyond campus. “But once they are empowered to roam the streets, first, how can campus police, out in the community, tell who is a student over whom they have authority?” Fritz Mullhauser, an attorney with the ACLU, said in August.

The D.C. Coalition for Open Government has also said it will monitor the situation as GW prepares to craft a bill for the Council.

Council member Jack Evans said in August he would need to hear student feedback before taking a stance on GW’s current proposal. His position was echoed by other city officials, including Council chairman Phil Mendelson

When asked recently about the 2002 bill, Evans said he did not “recollect it at all.” Council member Vincent Orange and former Council member Linda Cropp – who introduced the bill with Evans – also said they did not remember it.

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