Updated: April 28, 2014 at 2:36 p.m.
More than a half-dozen current and former officers allege that a hostile workplace culture within the University Police Department has led to high turnover, damaged staff morale and undermined the ability to respond to campus emergencies.
The officers claim that the department’s supervisors carry out duties with limited oversight, keeping their staff’s complaints “in the department closet” and reassigning officers who fail to follow their orders.
They described senior officers as often unprofessional, controlling and “demeaning” to the force of about 100 officers, who work largely out of sight from the department’s top leaders. That toxic work environment has prompted four officers to file federal complaints for discrimination over the last four years, they say, while other officers have quit so abruptly they hadn’t yet found other work.
“A lot of us are trying to leave,” said one officer, who has worked in the department for a decade. “There are some issues that need to be addressed that a lot of us have been bringing to the table for years and years and years and just have never been corrected.”
The officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because the department bans them from speaking with the media.
Several said that stories of discrimination alleged by former officer Linda Queen reveal some of the tension they experience on a day-to-day basis. Queen quit her job at UPD last month after she charged Sgt. Christopher Brown and Senior Cpl. Warren Gibbs with sexually harassing her.
UPD Chief Kevin Hay said in an interview last week that the department has a zero tolerance policy for discrimination or harassment. Hay said every UPD employee must complete an online course about workplace harassment, in addition to training at the police academy.
Gibbs, one of the supervisors accused by Queen of sexual harassment, is no longer employed by UPD, but University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to comment on why he left the force. Brown still works for the department.
An officer said that Gibbs’ departure was a “wake-up call” for the top levels of the department because high-ranking officers, especially those who have worked at the department for decades, are rarely fired. “He was gone, so it scared a lot of the guys,” the officer said.
Queen’s lawsuit claimed and several officers confirmed that another top patrol officer also left the department in the last year after he allegedly made sexual comments about female officers at work.
Queen’s attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, said last week that he is representing another UPD officer who was allegedly fired after he had complained about racial discrimination.
A dysfunctional chain of command
Complaints are often addressed at the lower levels of the department hierarchy, Hay said, and usually settled through conversations between officers and supervisors.
But officers said a fear of retaliation from their supervisors keep them from trying to send complaints up the chain of command.
“You might not get promoted. You might get yelled at. That’s the kind of environment that gets fostered a lot, that ‘us versus them’ environment,” an officer said.
Hay said officers have multiple avenues to lodge complaints – through the officers’ union, GW’s anti-discrimination leaders, human resources and the equal employment opportunity office.
He said the officers’ union has brought forward fewer grievances since he became chief in 2010. He could only remember two in the last year.
But one officer said the department has a “shotgun” management style: When one person makes a mistake, managers punish the entire team instead of disciplining that individual, which he said helps senior officers avoid disciplinary action.
A former officer said Hay “gives carte blanche to people underneath him,” and when he worked for GW, many issues were never brought to the chief’s attention.
“Chain of command is huge in how the entire operation is maintained there,” he said. “You can see how information doesn’t get passed on from rung to rung because it’s just human nature.”
The unhealthy environment has lasted through multiple administrations. Michael Wilhelm, a former officer who worked under UPD Chief Dolores Stafford, said his supervisors retaliated against him when he made mistakes by giving him assignments that he disliked instead of formally disciplining him.
His supervisors once ordered him to sit behind a desk as a security guard instead of patrolling for a week straight.
“They knew I would hate doing that,” Wilhelm said.
Officers said Stafford, who led the department for nearly two decades, had a more hands-on approach at UPD, while Hay prefers to delegate responsibilities.
One officer added supervisors who have broken department rules are often repeat offenders, but they rarely face more than a slap on the wrist.
“People who continuously mess up, who continuously are doing things that they’re not supposed to be doing, who are constantly getting sued by other officers for civil rights violations and violating that person’s personal dignity, they’re still here,” he said.
Almost two years ago, Sgt. Christopher Brown was suspended for 20 days after he detained three students in Triangle Park, which is beyond UPD’s jurisdiction. Brown, who has worked for the University since 2005, also has a lawsuit pending against him for using excessive force.
While some older members of the department have worked for GW for decades, younger officers only stay at UPD for a handful of years.
Hay said the department might have a higher turnover rate than other agencies because many officers join the force to take advantage of the University’s tuition benefits and earn their degrees. Once officers have made themselves more marketable, he said they move on.
He declined to provide annual turnover rates, though in past in interviews Hay has said that the number of officers hovers around 100 and about one-third take college classes.
“This place is kind of like a stepping stone. You don’t want to stay here for too long,” an officer said.
Breakdowns in procedure, communication
When a student reported seeing a gunman in South Hall last fall, an officer on the scene said supervisors ignored officers when they urged their commanders to immediately alert the Metropolitan Police Department. UPD waited 15 minutes to inform city police, though there turned out to be no danger.
Officers asked their superiors multiple times if they should stop students from entering the building, but the supervisors failed to give them an order. Before MPD arrived, campus police checked the 10th floor for signs of trouble, the officer said, even though GW police do not carry firearms.
“South Hall was a prime example of subordinates who knew what they were doing, who knew what the consequences were of someone being in a situation like that, and supervisors not listening and doing their own thing,” another officer said. “A lot of people could have died. That’s the sad reality.”
Current and former officers said that while they focused on the broader goal of campus safety, their supervisors aimed to rack up the number of students they’ve arrested, getting caught up in department politics.
One supervisor said he received lower performance evaluations because he got along with his subordinates.
“I’m really good friends with a lot of the officers. Those are my guys. I used to hang out with them all the time. But [supervisors] see that as a weakness, or they see that as a conflict of interest with me,” he said.
Several officers said that supervisors clashed with lower-level officers who performed well and became eligible for promotions.
“It’s almost like those who are not a threat of taking their jobs are treated with more respect than people who can speak for themselves,” a former officer said.
This article appeared in the April 28, 2014 issue of the Hatchet.