Sarah Blugis: UPD should wear body cameras to boost student trust

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

Sarah Blugis

Two weeks ago, I called my mom in a bit of a panic: There had been a shooting at one of the Pennsylvania State Police barracks, and my dad is a lieutenant.

Thankfully, the incident wasn’t too close to home – not even in my dad’s jurisdiction. It was an extreme case, and we can only guess at the shooter’s motives, but there’s evidence that he resented women and men like my dad. The tragic event, in which one officer was killed and another injured, brought to light something I’ve known since an early age.

Few would go to similar extremes, but a lot of people hate the police – whether university, local or state.

I’ve heard many reasons for this animosity throughout my life: Police are killjoys, they’re overwhelmingly racist and they love to abuse their power. And for a long time, I’ve wondered if there’s a way to build public trust in police and disprove some of these stereotypes.

Now, I think there might be a solution.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Sarah Blugis

Last week, the Metropolitan Police Department announced that starting this month, 150 officers will wear body cameras in an effort to increase transparency. Though this is only a pilot program, it’s one that’s being implemented in 5,000 departments across the country – and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar told The Hatchet that campus police currently have no plans to follow suit, but hopefully, MPD’s experiment has piqued the department’s interest.

Despite my inherent bias in favor of law enforcement, it’s been difficult for me to have complete confidence in our campus police. In recent years, the department has been riddled with allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and has faced criticism for botching responses to emergencies.

Most of these issues are internal and cannot be resolved without a shift in the University Police Department’s culture. But that doesn’t negate students’ mistrust in the department.

In the last four years, UPD officers have been physically assaulted 16 times, and 37 percent of those attacks were committed by students. Though it’s impossible to know the exact circumstances of each of these altercations, we should be confident that officers will always do the right thing in these situations.

If officers wore body cameras, perhaps students who encounter UPD wouldn’t act so aggressively toward them. It would help ensure that police have reasonably identified unlawful activity and applied no more force than necessary.

And though we don’t live in an area of the city with high rates of violent crime, UPD officers – like others across the country – certainly have plenty to deal with, like property crime, sexual assault and drug and alcohol abuse.

Plus, since our school is integrated in the city, campus police often encounter suspects who are not affiliated with GW, and the department has expressed interest in extending its jurisdiction off campus.

In 2013, UPD admitted that it had illegally operated outside its jurisdiction for years. In August of that same year, GW began to lobby for legislation that would give UPD power off campus. Following criticism from both campus and the surrounding community, the proposal lost steam until last April, when the department again tried to push the bill forward.

UPD clearly wants the power to police more people and cover more ground. But such a move would require more accountability and oversight. If campus police want any public support for this plan, they’ll need to show both GW and D.C. that they’re responsible enough.

Granted, body cameras do cost a significant amount of money: MPD’s six-month-long pilot program will cost the city about $1 million, with cameras priced at $400 or $600 each.

But as a special force in which students already have injured trust, cameras seem logical for UPD. Though we’ll have to wait to know for sure how the District’s pilot program will turn out, there are other case studies we can use to make predictions.

Body camera footage can help unravel difficult scenarios and show who is at fault. Just last week, footage helped investigators justify a fatal police shooting of a young man in Utah. In Ferguson, Mo., a camera could have assisted officials investigating the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Additionally, a joint study by the Community Oriented Policing Services and the Justice Department found encouraging results in Rialto, Calif. After police there began to wear cameras, the number of use-of-force incidents decreased 60 percent, and citizen complaints dropped a whopping 88 percent.

UPD should be paying close attention. The department should want to improve its relationship with students in any way that it can, and I’m sure we all wish we could trust our campus police a little more.

I’ll always trust my dad, and I’ll always believe that most police officers put their lives on the line to protect us. But when even I, the daughter of a cop, don’t have complete confidence in a police force, there’s a problem – and now we might have a way to fix it.

Sarah Blugis, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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