Expanding the campus police footprint into areas under the sole dominion of D.C. police has implications across the District. Through an umbrella group, representatives from eight universities are debating how far the authority of their officers should be extended.
The proposal has prompted questions over whether campus officers should have arrest powers on public streets and how officers would interact with residents. While school police forces have broad authority over students on campus — such as requiring students to show ID cards on demand — it is unclear how they could enforce code of conduct standards off school grounds.
“The real problem is if the university gives security officers power off-campus to treat students differently than other citizens,” said Art Spitzer, the chief legal counsel for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It raises bigger concerns if they’re going to have police powers against you and me and not just their own students.”
It also raises questions of how to hold private police accountable for actions they take in public. On campuses such as George Washington, for example, police aren’t required to make reports public.
“You could potentially have a police force with all the authority of state law enforcement but that somehow manages to fly under the disclosure radar,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student journalists. “It’s one thing when we’re talking about a cop walking around in a student union. But when we’re talking about a cop actually coming to your living room, the public really needs to know what you’re up to.”
Most universities use security officers commissioned by D.C. police. They have arrest powers but are restricted to their college campuses. Only the University of the District of Columbia, which is public, and Howard University, which is private, have armed police officers. Increasing their jurisdiction would require the approval of the D.C. Council.
At a recent Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting in Foggy Bottom, students and recent graduates of George Washington University — who account for five of the eight ANC board members — faced off against administrators and residents over the proposal.
“GW has not proven it can be trusted,” said L. Asher Corson, a graduate who represents Foggy Bottom’s historic district, noting the improper police patrols uncovered last month by the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet. Other students on the board and in the audience echoed his concerns.