GW’s security chief has hired consultants to investigate the University Police Department’s culture and policies – a move that experts say could help campus officers start fresh after reports of widespread harassment and discrimination within the force.
Officers will likely spend weeks speaking with investigators about how the department operates outside its formal policies, and give them the chance to air any grievances. That means GW may be able to have a full report detailing the department’s work environment, after at least three former officers have filed complaints against the University in the past year.
UPD Chief Kevin Hay abruptly stepped down from his post this month, and experts say working with a consulting firm can help the department identify institutional problems before a new chief is picked.
“Before you bring in a permanent chief, you want to make sure everything is squared away,” said Chuck Drago, a former police chief who now advises departments across the country.
Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell declined to comment on why he wanted the firm, Justice and Security Strategies, to examine the department now. He also declined to comment on when the consultants would start the review or whether the firm would focus on specific aspects of the department.
“Justice and Security Strategies has been retained to assist the Office of Safety and Security in reviewing operations and communications within the GW Police Department and in enhancing the operations of the department,” Darnell said in an email statement.
The review comes as the department has dealt with five complaints of sexual, racial or age discrimination over the last four years, as well as other reports of a hostile workplace culture. Craig Uchida, president of Justice and Security Strategies, declined to comment, deferring questions to Darnell.
The department is slated to go through an accreditation review next month, testing whether UPD policies are on par with those of top departments nationwide. But accreditation only goes so far, and experts say it often doesn’t investigate deep-seated cultural problems.
Mark Wynn, a campus safety and security consultant, said an accredited police department can still have significant problems in its ranks.
“Accreditation is a great standard to strive for, and it says a lot about the agency that can meet the national accreditation standard,” Wynn said. “But it doesn’t mean because you’re an accredited department, you can’t be sued.”
Wynn added that the most thorough investigations allow officers to speak anonymously about the problems they face on a day-to-day basis.
“If it’s anonymous auditing, most officers would be more than happy to tell you what the issues are in the department, right down to the line level,” he said.
Some experts said the firm will likely look for instances of discrimination, and could also interview those involved in the legal complaints.
One former officer, Linda Queen, left the department last spring after filing a charge for gender-based discrimination, claiming her supervisors sexually harassed her and GW denied her promotions after she complained.
Aaron Johnson, another former officer, alleges that his supervisors discriminated against him because of his race.
Ari Wilkenfeld, the lawyer overseeing Johnson and Queen’s cases, said the outside review shows that UPD is serious about making changes to its reputation.
“It may indicate that there’s a new day, they’re interested in looking at serious problems and now the chief is gone, they can blame him,” he said.
Wilkenfeld added that the findings of the report could not be used in court if the lawsuit was filed before the review.
“Anything anyone ever does to improve things later on cannot be used by either party as evidence of what was there before,” he said.