Staff Editorial: New UPD chief can repair damaged department, rebuild student trust

At admitted students days this month, tour guides and admissions representatives will assure parents and prospective students that, despite the University being an urban school, our campus is safe. They’ll talk about 4-RIDE, the blue light system and, most importantly, the University Police Department.

UPD should be well-equipped to keep us safe while dealing with the unique aspects of University life because they’re ingrained in the community. But when a new police chief is chosen as early as next month, he or she won’t find the department in the best shape.

Even though UPD has been accredited four times in a row, it has experienced problems like ongoing complaints of a hostile work environment – including a sexual harassment lawsuit and racial discrimination complaints – and concerning breakdowns in procedure and communication.

In the fall, UPD Chief Kevin Hay stepped down from his role with almost no notice, setting GW on a search to replace him quickly. Students are being included in the search process, and that’s encouraging – it demonstrates that the University genuinely wants student input, which could improve UPD’s reputation on campus.

Once selected, the new chief will have a chance to play his or her part. It’s time for UPD’s culture, both within the department and on campus, to change – and the new chief must be the one leading the way.

Within the department, we’d hope to see a leader who pushes for a work environment built on mutual respect. Hay was often accused of running UPD much like the military with a strict hierarchy. If officers had a problem, they were advised to go their immediate supervisor.

That was hugely problematic in cases where harassment or discrimination came from above. In one complaint, an officer said he was fired in retaliation after he took his concerns up the chain of command.

The new chief should look to implement a new structure from the top down that would make officers feel more comfortable voicing complaints. It’s also important that the chief feels responsible for everything happening below him or her: Accepting responsibility can improve the behavior of everyone else in the department.

Equally important for the chief are the issues most salient for students. It’s especially concerning that members of the department were accused of racial discrimination and sexual harassment given the nationwide circumstances surrounding both of those issues.

It’s important that students see a more respectful culture within the department because that will make them more willing to go to UPD for help. UPD is one of the places where sexual violence survivors can report their crimes, and it’s essential that they feel comfortable doing so – that they know their case will be treated with respect and care.

There are also certain hot spots on or near campus where crimes often occur – like the plaza next to the Foggy Bottom Metro station and the streets behind the GW Hospital. In this academic year alone, that area has seen attempted sexual assaults, a multiple-suspect assault, a multiple-suspect sexual assault and a violent robbery.

Despite student concerns, Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell has declined to say whether UPD has increased patrols in the area for fear of giving potential criminals too much information. Experts disagree, however, and have told The Hatchet that campus police should publicize the areas where they have increased patrols in an effort to deter crime.

Instead of concealing information, the new chief should strive to reassure students that UPD is there to protect them in areas where they might feel unsafe.

When Hay stepped down in the fall, he declined to sit for an interview with The Hatchet. The next chief should be more open and communicative with not only students, but with the GW community as a whole.

The new police chief should find practical ways to improve face-to-face relationships with students – especially given complaints about officers being too aggressive. The chief should not only encourage officers to be more visible on campus, but should increase his or her own visibility, too. By attending events like Colonial Inauguration, visiting Greek chapters, or appearing at alcohol and safety trainings, the new police chief can become a trusted figure on campus, rather than one students don’t recognize.

Part of a UPD officer’s job is to enforce the rules – including ones that students may not like. Naturally, we can never expect that students will be huge fans of campus police: UPD officers make students turn their music down, break up parties and confiscate drugs and alcohol. Many students probably feel like campus police spoil all the fun, and we can acknowledge that. It comes with the territory.

But UPD is here to protect us as well, which means their presence on campus doesn’t have to be an annoying one. Sure, UPD has tried to connect with students in the past, but the department’s priorities should move beyond playing root beer pong or having spaghetti dinners with students.

We can’t expect students and their campus police to have a completely cordial relationship. In fact, that’s probably a good thing: UPD officers are there to protect us, not be our friends. But the new chief should aim to create stronger connections based on mutual respect.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet 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 director Justin Peligri, sports editor Nora Princiotti, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design assistant Samantha LaFrance.

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