Universities throughout the District want to expand the reach of their campus security forces into adjacent neighborhoods to better control disruptive behavior by students and to appease angry neighbors.
The issue is sparking sharp debate, notably at George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus, where residents are increasingly clashing with student neighbors over late-night parties and other quality-of-life issues, and where school police were admonished for improperly patrolling off private grounds.
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.
The newspaper, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained documents from D.C. police — which regulates private police commissions — to discover that campus officers had been knocking on doors of private houses, followed a car off campus and improperly detained three students suspected of having marijuana in a public park last year. “If GW is going to expand power, then the police need to behave like real police behave,” Corson said.
George Washington said in a statement that officers had responded to calls off campus “at the request of our neighbors.” That practice has been stopped, officials said, though administrators declined to discuss the issue further.
At the ANC meeting, Renee McPhatter, George Washington’s assistant vice president of government and community relations, equated expanding the jurisdiction of campus to being good neighbors. “This is not to hassle students,” she said. “This is not a power grab. We are part of the community, and we want to make sure we’re responsible.”
Susan Lampton, who has lived in Foggy Bottom for 15 years, welcomed the added campus police protection and would like it to return. She said student parties have gotten louder and more disruptive. But she said it’s embarrassing to trouble District officers with nuisance crimes. “Maybe there’s a rape across the city and I’d rather have them go to that than my noise complaint,” she said.
D.C. police said they were waiting to see a final proposal before weighing in on the plan. Chief Cathy L. Lanier said her force enjoys strong relationships with campus officers across the city, but she noted that uniform standards are important.
“The public has certain expectations of skills, knowledge, transparency and accountability of police operating on public space,” Lanier said in a statement. “We need to work together to ensure that any security or law enforcement agency operating on public space is able to meet those expectations.”
Sally Kram, a spokeswoman for the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, said the group is working to come up with a plan on how police would handle student conduct issues off campus.She said there has been no consensus on how far off campus officers would go.
The schools taking part in the discussion are Howard, Georgetown, George Washington, American, Catholic, Gallaudet, Trinity and UDC. Some did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment. Trinity, a small Catholic school in Northeast Washington, said that it is participating but has no plans to expand its small police force.
Kram said the initial thought was to extend police jurisdiction only to the sidewalk across the street from each school’s campus, to align patrol responsibilities to real estate that federal law mandates be included in the schools’ crime statistics. “In a metropolitan area, a lot of things occur on the sidewalks and streets,” Kram said. “We report those crimes as if they occurred on campus, but we don’t have jurisdiction there.”
But some universities say they want to go farther. “Howard University would like to expand its jurisdiction to all neighborhoods where the university has residence halls and campus property,” according a statement. It added that the new rules “would provide full law enforcement authority in adjoining neighborhoods.”
Georgetown Police Chief Jay Gruber said he doesn’t want his campus officers to have arrest powers off campus. But he does want them to be allowed to respond to complaints from residents, who can report problems with students by calling a hotline.
“We have no interest whatsoever in enforcing any criminal laws off campus,” Gruber said. “I would like to be able to go off campus, as a university official, and interact with students who are causing a disruption. My interest is addressing student conduct. It’s a real win for the community, for the university and for the police. They don’t have to take a car off the road to deal with a nuisance issue.”