NOTE: Back in March, the strange arrest and then prompt clearance of Abdi Rashir in the George Mason University library in Fairfax unleashed a jolt of unhappiness with the campus police. Our GMU correspondent, undergraduate student Donna Peterson, follows up on the aftermath of the incident and Mason’s aim to make its police force more reflective of its multicultural student body. — Tom Jackman
A firm knock on the door of a college dorm room followed by an announcement that the police are on the other side can send a bolt of panic through students at some universities, even if they’re not doing anything illegal. At George Mason University, student and community feelings of distrust and uncaring, inconsistent and unsupportive actions by the campus police, especially minority students, came to a head in March when a student was arrested in the Fairfax campus library.
But George Mason is now addressing the concerns of students and the community about what has been perceived as overly aggressive responses by the university police.
In March, university President Alan Merten created a task force after the library incident. The task force met over the spring and summer, holding two days of hearings where 17 students came forward to speak about their experiences with the school’s police department. According to the task force’s report released in July, they also received over 100 e-mailed comments, both positive and negative.
Of the 24 recommendations put forward by the task force, the first was to change the role of the campus police to “embody the values at George Mason University,” where diversity and multiculturalism are valued. To this end, the report calls for a change to community policing “beyond crime control,” to one of providing services to the public.
They also established a second task force “to monitor the progress” and help in an advisory capacity, said Dan Walsch, a university spokesman.
“The police have been looking at this and starting to implement” the recommendations, trying to “put themselves in a better position and be more open and collaborative with students,” Walsch said.
Walsch pointed out that three demonstrations occurred simultaneously in the heart of campus recently: a general assembly of students, plus a demonstration protesting the restriction of guns on GMU’s campuses and another one in opposition to the gun restriction protest. All went off without a hitch, Walsch said.
While George Mason University’s enrollment numbers bear out its commitment to diversity, the task force found, “Minorities are particularly sensitive to treatment by the police, more likely to report that they are treated poorly or unfairly, and less satisfied with how they are treated.”
But it’s not clear whether the campus police force, headed by Chief Michael Lynch, has embraced diversity in its hiring, because the university would not release statistics on the racial makeup of the department.
On campus, of the 33,320 students enrolled in the fall of this year, 55 percent are female, and the racial breakdown is 49.75 percent white and 50.25 percent nonwhite. This is a big change from 2002, when white studnets made up 65.5 percent of the enrollment, and nonwhite students were 34.5 percent.
A request for demographic information on the police department was submitted to Walsch but he did not respond.