Staff Editorial: UPD must look inward before trying to expand its power

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Erica Christian | Photo Editor
The University Police Department is again attempting to expand its jurisdiction off campus, despite allegations of a hostile work environment.

Over the past year, our campus police department has come under scrutiny time and time again:

For inadequate responses to emergencies. Officials said the department experienced a “breakdown in procedure” at South Hall in November, when it responded to the threat of a gunman on campus with complete disregard for the safety of students or officers.

For disturbing allegations. Officers have reported sexual harassment and racial discrimination at the hands of their co-workers.
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[/RLBox]For accounts of a hostile work environment. Officers claim that supervisors retaliate against those who express concerns.

There’s clearly systematic dysfunction within the University Police Department. And amid all of this, the University continues to push for the power to let its officers police off campus. Eight months after they first proposed it, GW officials have again said that they would lobby the city to allow officers to patrol beyond campus boundaries.

This move would be irresponsible. UPD needs to be controlled and, above all, better managed before it can possibly be given any more power. In finding a solution, the University must not leave a single resource untapped. Something needs to be done to repair one of the most important departments on campus.

A broken system
When an officer has a complaint, it goes up the chain of command within the department. UPD Chief Kevin Hay told The Hatchet that issues are often resolved at the lower levels of the hierarchy, usually in conversations between officers and their supervisors.

But several officers allege that supervisors treat them unfairly, like relegating them to desk duty, after they bring forward grievances.

Hay said supervisors, who oversee day-to-day operations, receive just a week of training before taking on their new roles and often base their leadership styles on the practices of their superiors.

This is the broken system that has allowed department darling Sgt. Christopher Brown to remain on the force even after facing multiple charges of misconduct, including detaining students off campus, using excessive force on the job, sexually harassing colleagues and discriminating against others because of their race.

Students simply can’t trust our police, who are responsible for keeping us safe, when the department cannot even properly reprimand an officer who has repeatedly faced accusations of stepping out of line.

Of course, not all of the personnel-related allegations may be proven. But even the perception that a police force is running amok is cause for concern. If a student is a victim of sexual assault, for example, how can he or she feel comfortable going to a department where officers have been accused of sexually harassing their co-workers?

True or not, accounts of inappropriate behavior damage the entire department’s reputation. A police force should have as sparkling an image as possible so people feel comfortable turning to them for help. That’s what they’re there for.

During the South Hall incident, officers received no instructions from their supervisors and failed to immediately contact the Metropolitan Police Department. Some officers even went up to the floor where students had reported seeing a gunman, though UPD officers are unarmed.

Thankfully, the event at South Hall didn’t turn tragic: Officers found out that students in the Naval reserve had been practicing drills with non-functioning rifles. Even though it was a false alarm, the event was a symptom of a broader problem.

There are some things UPD does right. The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies reviews the department for months before giving a stamp of approval, and UPD has passed three times. But a nice label doesn’t make systematic issues go away.

Treating the symptoms
The University administration is good at responding to problems when tragedy gives it cause to do so.

GW sent counselors to the Mount Vernon Campus after three suicides in West Hall this semester, and pledged to establish a permanent counseling presence there in the future. In 2009, the University revamped its alcohol amnesty policies after a sophomore died from alcohol poisoning in Ivory Tower.

The University of California, Davis knows something about reacting to a police scandal. At an Occupy movement protest in 2011, a university police officer pepper-sprayed a group of peaceful student protesters.

In response, the school created an oversight body called the UC Davis Police Accountability Board. Made up of students, faculty and other campus representatives, the group reviews internal investigations and has a say in policy recommendations.

At GW, it shouldn’t take a national attention-grabbing event to address a problem. The University can be proactive now.

Civilian oversight of GW’s police force would be relatively inexpensive, since the positions would be voluntary and unpaid, and would only could require some resources to train and educate members.

Admittedly, the plan would take time to perfect (at Davis, it has been in the works for more than a year), and a board wouldn’t necessarily be a cure-all for the department’s problems. But oversight would be the first step in corralling a department that is incapable of handling internal issues.

UPD won’t change without outside pressure compelling it to do so. Every student living on this campus has the right to basic safety and security, and our police need to be able to protect us to the best of their ability. Right now, we’re forced to believe UPD simply can’t do that on its own anymore.

The Hatchet’s editorial board is composed of several staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing directors Justin Peligri and Jenna Bernick and copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein.

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