Staff Editorial: D.C. Council should listen to students’ concerns about UPD

Over winter break, you may have missed an important piece of news: A bill was introduced in the D.C. Council that, if passed, would give the University Police Department off-campus jurisdiction.

This isn’t the first time the GW community has had conversations about this issue. In 2002, a similar bill came before the Council and failed. In 2014, GW tried to gather support from other D.C. schools to craft a similar bill, but it never came to fruition.

The bill that the Council will now consider is a bit different from past attempts, and actually includes some good ideas. For example, it would provide special police forces like UPD with additional training on how to work with people with disabilities or mental health conditions. It would also allow university police forces across the city – at GW, along with Georgetown, American, Catholic and Howard universities – to help each other in times of emergency.

But giving UPD and other campus police forces off-campus jurisdiction, which the new bill includes, is still a bad idea.

Unlike in 2014, Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie proposed this legislation – not GW. So far, the University has declined to provide any details on whether or not it supports the passage of the bill and, by extension, the expansion of UPD power.

“We look forward to following the bill as it proceeds through the legislative process, which is open to the public, but are not going to comment on the specific legislation at this time,” University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email.

Given students’ objections to UPD patrolling off campus in the past, it’s a shame that the Council is ignoring what students have to say. The Student Association, along with the student governments of other D.C. universities, have already condemned the bill, citing concerns about students’ safety on campus. And the reasons why off-campus jurisdiction is a bad idea go beyond student fears that UPD would simply break up their parties.

Even if students felt less strongly about granting campus police forces power off campus, the idea should come from D.C. schools, not the Council. Life on an urban campus like GW’s is complex, and making changes to the way a police force like UPD operates deserves careful consideration. If this bill impacted the full consortium of D.C. universities, then it could impact 14 universities with unique student bodies and different neighborhoods.

That also means that this could impact 14 different police departments, and Metropolitan Police would have to coordinate with all of them – something we already know is difficult for UPD and MPD to do. Some school police forces, like Howard University, even allow officers to carry guns – just one example of how controlling expanded jurisdiction could get complicated.

Allowing for off-campus jurisdiction may also pose financial difficulties. In order to avoid diverting too many resources away from campus, schools may be forced to hire additional officers. Given budget constraints, that isn’t always feasible.

This legislation is also alarmingly ambiguous. It would allow a campus or university police officer to “exercise his or her authority as an officer outside the property or area he or she is appointed to protect pursuant to a public safety plan submitted to, and approved by, the Chief of Police,” according to the bill. It goes on to lay out the minimum requirements for that public safety plan, including the specific geographic locations that officers would cover and rules from the Student Code of Conduct that officers would enforce.

That leaves many unanswered questions about what exactly UPD would be able to do off campus, who is subject to its authority and how the department would ensure that it has enough resources to cover areas both on and off campus. This legislation is clearly out of touch with student priorities and campus needs – which means the Council is out of touch, too.

It’s particularly disappointing that Foggy Bottom’s council member Jack Evans – who has represented this area for more than twenty years – has yet to comment on this bill. He is not a co-sponsor, and had said he was waiting to comment because he hadn’t heard input from members of the community, which is encouraging.

But since he does represent the area surrounding GW and therefore its students, he should be sure to listen to objections from those on campus. And since Evans represented Foggy Bottom through the last two attempts to grant UPD off-campus jurisdiction and supported the 2002 legislation, he should already be well aware of the consequences such a bill would have for students.

Granted, Council members may not feel inclined to care about what students have to say. But that’s not the attitude they should have. While some of us may only be temporary residents of the District during our college years, many of us will choose to stay in D.C. after graduation and will continue to contribute to the D.C. economy.

Inarguably, a bill like this would affect students more than anyone else. Rather than worsen the relationship between students and the city, it would benefit the Council to listen to what students have to say. Many of us are willing to pay rent to live here, continue our community service after graduation and support local businesses every day. That makes us worth listening to.

It just doesn’t make sense for the Council to decide what’s best for UPD or GW students. They aren’t the ones who would be forced to deal with the consequences of UPD’s expanded power, and we are.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee and managing director Eva Palmer.

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