Updated: Sept. 1, 2015 at 1:00 p.m.
The University Police Department’s new chief hopes to use her position to strengthen the relationship between students and the department.
Chief RaShall Brackney, who joined GW in June, said in an interview that she wants to encourage more community members to interact with officers and other officials and “shift toward a culture of inclusion.” To do so, UPD will have to overcome a reputation marked with several public relations hurdles, including the sudden departure of its last chief.
Brackney has spent the last several months meeting with faculty, residence advisers, members of the Student Association and community service aides — the students who take shifts supervising entrances to campus buildings — to get their opinions on safety and how UPD can be improved. She said she’ll use that information to chart a new course for the department while providing a response tailored to the community’s concerns.
Brackney said she wants to better involve everyone on campus in thinking and focusing on safety, and not placing that duty on a single department.
“For me, one of the priorities is getting the message out that campus safety is not the responsibility of UPD,” she said. “Campus safety really is everyone’s responsibility.”
Creating a ‘culture of inclusion’
Brackney is leading a department in which five former officers have filed complaints for age, race and gender discrimination in the past five years. Earlier this spring, a former UPD officer filed a lawsuit against the University, alleging that she was sexually harassed by two of her male supervisors when she was on the force.
The former chief, Kevin Hay, led the department for four years before retiring suddenly last fall. Some officers described him as having a top-down leadership style, creating a hierarchy in the department that made them feel uncomfortable expressing their concerns.
Experts say a new police chief can play a key role in setting a new agenda for a department and must make sure the department maintains a civil relationship with students. But the chief also plays an important part in creating an open and transparent culture within a department, which experts said Brackney must also prioritize.
“If she comes in and does not solve the air of ‘them against us’ among the police and the air of ‘we can trust the police’ among the students, then she might as well not be there,” said Michael Levine, a law enforcement consultant.
Brackney said she would also like to expand the department’s existing Connect program, which pairs individual officers with students, saying, “it should be a philosophy in the way we operate” instead of an individual effort by officers. The Connect program was launched in 2013 to hold events for students and officers like self-defense classes or spaghetti dinners in residence halls.
Brackney said the department also recently started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #GWSafety to offer safety tips for the community. Officials began posting safety tips like emergency numbers and reminders to protect electronic devices while riding the Metro two weeks ago, according to UPD’s Twitter account.
“I want accurate information. I want useful facts. I want things that really can help to make this campus a safer, secure campus,” she said.
William Taylor, the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said that departments are increasingly turning to social media to spread information.
“You have to take your message where the people are at,” he said.
Other experts said the department will need to do more than just use social media to ensure students are educated fully. And in order to reap the benefits of the Twitter campaign, students would need to be following UPD’s account, meaning some may miss out on the tips that are shared.
Connecting with city officials
Brackney also has existing connections with officials at the Metropolitan Police Department, which could help her bridge the gap between city and campus police. UPD officials have historically said that they are in daily contact with officers at MPD to share information and get crime tips.
Brackney went to the FBI Academy with Michael Reese, the former commander of the police district that includes Foggy Bottom. She also had completed a Secret Service course with MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, and said she is setting a time to meet with the current MPD commander for the area.
“It’s nice to have at least some background information about the communities and have personal relationships,” Brackney said.
The dynamic between UPD and MPD has not always been smooth. Two years ago, MPD waited several hours to inform UPD of an armed robbery on campus and a week later, UPD waited 15 minutes to inform MPD of a gun threat in a residence hall.
But just this summer, MPD quickly alerted officials at UPD when two armed men ran toward campus after a carjacking. One man was captured after a student in summer housing called UPD.
Building personal relationships
In addition to getting to know MPD officers, Brackney said she will also start hosting small gatherings where students, faculty and staff could meet with her over coffee — a tradition she started during her 15 years as a commander in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.
“These kinds of things are really important and they also give me the opportunity to reinforce those personal relationships,” she said. “Really, the way you change safety and security on campus is through personal relationships.”
Experts applauded Brackney’s commitment to getting to know her new environment, calling it an important first step in improving the department’s reputation on campus.
Michael Dorn, the executive director of the campus safety organization Safe Havens International, said Brackney’s focus on building connections will help her build trust with students and could give her insight into crime trends on campus.
“You set a tone with the community that you’re willing to get feedback,” Dorn said. “When they see those types of efforts, they feel like you’re open to community input.”
Brackney has already met with representatives from the Student Association, including President Andie Dowd and Executive Vice President Casey Syron. This summer Syron and Dowd completed one of Dowd’s main security goals — adding information, like UPD’s phone number, to the back of GWorld cards.
Dowd said in an interview that she talked with the chief about increasing the number of UPD officers who bike around campus, a tactic experts said can help officers get to know members of the community.
“If you see someone on a bike you can almost catch up to them. There isn’t that barrier of a car with a rolled up window,” said Jack Dowling, the president of JD Security Consultants which provides risk assessments and safety surveys for universities and companies.
Brackney’s daughter is a rising senior at California University of Pennsylvania. Syron said that because Brackney’s daughter is is a college student, she will be able to relate to GW students.
“She has a kid in college right now, so she’s really good at connecting with students,” Syron said. “We’re really looking forward to that.”
Eva Palmer contributed reporting.
This post was updated to reflect the following clarification:
Brackney, not Syron, said her daughter is a rising senior at California University of Pennsylvania.