Editor’s Note Episode 15: Public Safety Committee’s report
More than eight months after Chancellor Andrew Martin announced that Washington University would reimagine public safety both on and off campus, the University Public Safety Committee has released its final report last. Associate Editor Matthew Friedman breaks down the report with our news team. Kamala Madireddi edited the audio. Copy Chief JJ Coley wrote the theme music.
The transcript of the episode can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:
MATTHEW FRIEDMAN (0:09-1:18) Last June, as protests around the country focused a spotlight on systemic racial injustice and the role of police in communities, Chancellor Andrew Martin announced that Washington University would reimagine campus safety. Now, more than eight months later, the University community has a sense of what reimagined campus safety looks like, as the University Public Safety Committee released its final report last Friday.
I’m Associate Editor Matthew Friedman, and you’re listening to Editor’s Note, Student Life’s weekly podcast breaking down our biggest stories with the reporters and editors who covered them.
The Public Safety Committee was made up mainly of students and faculty members. Over eight meetings between October and January, the committee members heard from people in the community on topics ranging from different definitions of safety to the role that the Washington University Police Department currently plays on campus. I talked with Student Life senior news editors Em McPhie and Ted Moskal, who covered the committee’s report this week, about what the report entailed.
McPhie explained how the committee structured the report.
EM MCPHIE (1:19-1:48) At the beginning of the report, the committee set out the four objectives that they had when they started working. First, they wanted to explore how different groups defined safety; second, increase the transparency of existing safety services; third, review the role of WUPD and other campus security; and fourth, create a platform for getting feedback from members of the community as they move forward with these changes.
MF (1:49-2:19) The committee then moved to three recommendations for improving safety on the Danforth Campus. First, the committee recommended that the University adjust the way it responds to mental health incidents. Then they moved on to recommend the creation of more opportunities for the administration to respond to community feedback regarding public safety and finally suggested that the University improve public safety communications and outreach.
Moskal observed how the issue of responses to mental health incidents is quite complicated.
TED MOSKAL (2:20-2:52) The people who are running the emergency call system at the Danforth Campus, currently their policy is just to refer all mental health calls to WUPD. The report recommends that their training should be updated so they then make a decision about whether or not to involve WUPD in these mental health calls. And ideally, they would then hire crisis response workers, that’s the second point of this recommendation, to respond to mental health calls in place, and this would lead to the end result being WUPD officers not being involved, generally.
MF (2:53-3:26) Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Support and Wellness Kirk Dougher, who served on the committee, explained to Moskal in an email that as the number of mental health-related calls on campus has increased, that responsibility has slowly drifted into WUPD’s domain. Dougher noted that WUPD officers have much more training in mental health responses than they are required to have, but he also noted that the committee recognized the many benefits of shifting some responsibilities to licensed mental health providers.
McPhie said the report lacked specificity, particularly in relation to the mental health response recommendation.
EM (3:27-4:02) One of their potential recommended tactics for implementing that is to garner additional funding to WUPD, which is something that I found interesting, because that’s quite contrary to a lot of what the conversation on campus has been, which has been shifting funding from WUPD to mental health services. So the report leaves kind of open-ended. It doesn’t recommend one way or the other whether additional funding should go to mental health services to respond to mental health incidents or whether additional funding should go to WUPD to better train officers to respond to mental health incidents.
MF (4:03-4:28) The open-ended nature of the recommendations gets at another important aspect of the report. The Public Safety Committee has no authority to put their ideas into place. The actual implementation of the recommendations will be up to the administration.
Executive Vice Chancellor for Civic Affairs and Strategic Planning Hank Webber told McPhie that in general, the administration was supportive of the report’s recommendations.
HANK WEBBER (4:29-4:51) We’ve already started to figure out exactly how to respond and how to implement. The timing here is that over the next two to three weeks we’ll develop an implementation plan that will be affected clearly by responses to the report and we will then start implementation. And I would hope that we can implement all of these by next fall at the latest.
MF (4:52-5:50) As part of their work, the committee commissioned a survey of community members to ask about their definitions of safety and their experiences with the campus police. 1,427 respondents took the survey, and the data showed wide disparities. Whereas 68 percent of white respondents reported feeling comfortable or very comfortable in their interactions with WUPD, that rate was only 50 percent for Black respondents and 55 percent for Hispanic or Latino respondents. Feelings of comfort also differed based on gender identity, as 74 percent of men and 61 percent of women said they had felt comfortable with WUPD compared to just 15 percent of non-binary respondents and 17 percent of transgender respondents. Bisexual and gay or lesbian individuals were also much likelier to report feeling uncomfortable with WUPD.
McPhie asked Stephanie Kurtzman, the director of the Gephardt Institute and a co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, how she thought the report’s recommendations addressed these issues.
EM to STEPHANIE KURTZMAN (5:51-5:59) None of the three recommendations really directly address that problem, but how do you see them working to fix that discrepancy?
STEPHANIE KURTZMAN (6:00-6:45) For me, I really see that falling in, well all of the recommendations, but across recommendation three in particular, that engagement with key groups, whether those are first-year students, students living off-campus, underrepresented students such as the ones that you just described. It’s clear that relationship-building, something of a community policing model, if you will, and building specific pipelines for relationships and for feedback loops, specifically with those populations that have had less positive experiences with policing in general or with the Wash. U. Police Department.
MF (6:46-7:04) While negative experiences with police have long been at the core of student activism, the topic has come into greater focus over the last year, as some groups have called for everything from defunding and disarming WUPD to complete abolition of the department altogether. How did those students respond to the Public Safety Committee’s report?
EM (7:05-7:35) Among some students that I have talked to there is a concern that no matter what official channel is created to house student concerns and to, in theory, listen to student concerns, that doesn’t say anything about how the administration will respond to student concerns and that doesn’t necessarily say there will be increase in administrative response compared to what there has been over the last several months when students have been making their voices very clearly heard, even if through less official channels.
TM (7:36-7:48) I’m sure there’s a lot more that certain activists would be saying that Wash. U. could be doing, and at the end of the day this probably isn’t going to satisfy a lot of people pushing for WUPD abolition, but I think it’s a step in a certain direction.
MF (7:49-8:02) Did it seem like there was anything else that was left out of this report, or was there anything else that struck the two of you as something that they probably should have addressed, given the conversations that have been happening on campus, that you were surprised to see left out?
EM (8:03-8:50) Yeah, so WUPD has a significant presence in neighborhoods surrounding Wash. U.’s campus and, actually, back in 2019 there was a different public safety commission that was also working on WUPD and Wash. U.’s approach to public safety. And while that was going on, members of the University City and St. Louis community made it very clear that they did not want WUPD to have an increased presence in their neighborhoods—that’s obviously been an issue in the past, and I don’t think that’s something that’s really covered much in the report at all. The report talks a lot about reaching out to students living in neighborhoods surrounding the campus, but not to non-students living in those neighborhoods. It doesn’t really address at all how the St. Louis community feels about WUPD.
MF (8:51-9:00) Still, though there are disagreements about the committee’s process and recommendations, Kurtzman remained optimistic about the ability of similar strategies to create change going forward.
SK (9:01-9:19) The other thing that really struck me was how much the campus community seemed to value the opportunity to be heard and to be asked, and I think that’s a really important part of this process that should continue beyond this committee’s work.
MF (9:25-9:36) Editor’s Note will be back next week to break down another developing story. Freshman Kamala Madireddi edited this week’s audio, and for Student Life Media, I’m Matthew Friedman.