Safety working group outlines initial proposals to students

Curran Neenan | News Editor

Executive Vice Chancellor Hank Webber presented the initial recommendations of the public safety working group to students, Nov 19.

The recommendations include an expansion of the campus shuttle system, a commitment to partnering with surrounding communities and stakeholders and a possible increase of WUPD patrols nearby campus. The group’s final recommendations are due to the chancellor’s office at the end of the calendar year.

The working group was convened by Chancellor Andrew Martin after a two-day crime spree in September yielded four armed robberies in the Skinker-DeBaliviere area; three of the incidents happened within 30 minutes of each other. Webber said that while Washington University does experience periodic spikes of crime, its violent crime rate is on par with peer institutions.

“The [surge in crime] justifies an increased investment, but not a revolutionary approach,” Webber said.

Violent crime off campus has been a constant source of fear for students in the past year. A similar string of muggings September 2018 spurred the University to implement its temporary “fruber” program, and a rash of crime in February caused the University to expand its safety communications after pressure from students and install a full-time bike patrol unit.

The shuttle system, which many students rely on for late-night transportation across or near campus, will add new 15-minute routes to South Campus, the Delmar Loop and the Skinker-DeBaliviere area, as well as a dedicated vehicle that will shuttle between North and West Campus. The Circulator and Campus2Home lines will remain untouched under the proposed overhaul.

According to Webber, the geography of where students are choosing to live off campus has shifted, with students moving deeper into the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood and farther north of the Delmar Loop; areas that currently have no WUPD presence. Webber said the University will offer those areas WUPD patrols requisite with the status quo of other student-populated off-campus sectors, which Webber said would amount to an uptick of a few officers.

“These are neighborhoods where thousands of citizens live who are not affiliated with the University, who have their own lives, who have their own views, and whatever action we take should arise from conversation with them,” Webber said.

He said he has received a barrage of calls from minority members of nearby communities urging the University not to overpolice its surroundings.

Students of color at the University have consistently responded to such proposals with forceful reminders about their opposition to an increased police presence. Webber’s Chief of Staff Richard Payton was responsible for staffing the committee and said that policing’s impact on communities of color was a consistent topic brought up in the group’s meetings. The proposal does not call for increased coverage around campus by the St. Louis Police Department.

Junior Candace Hayes pressed Webber about the possible patrol increase, asking why the University would extend the status quo to new areas when “the status quo already makes so many people uncomfortable.”

Speaking to Student Life, Hayes referenced the July 2018 IHOP incident, in which 10 Black Washington University freshmen were racially profiled by local police searching for dine-and-dashers, as an example of how a police presence can negatively impact Black students.

“Perpetuating the status quo glosses over the numerous student editorials and stories that have come out about how uncomfortable the status quo makes a lot of Black and brown students,” Hayes said.

One of the group’s recommendations was for the University to work with surrounding communities to search for solutions to public safety issues. Payton mentioned possible collaborations with various neighborhood associations in Skinker-DeBaliviere, as well as improving the University’s relationship with the city manager and police chief of University City.

The committee, which is composed of University administrators, the University’s general counsel and two students, lacks any representation from nearby neighborhoods. According to Payton, the group did not want to dictate safety practices to surrounding neighborhoods with a range of different methods on strengthening public safety. Payton said the University Office of Government & Community Relations provided constant input to the group.

According to Webber, who chaired the committee, the committee had two main goals: to enhance safety measures on or around the Danforth Campus as well as explore how the University can help diminish violent crime in the St. Louis region.

Payton said the last several meetings have focused heavily on how the University can support the region in dealing with crime. A major part of that conversation, according to Webber, is how involved the University is obligated to be.

“[Regionwide violent crime] is clearly not our responsibility, but we’re a big influence,” Webber said. “We have considerable resources to help think about social problems, and I think a commitment to contribute to those.”

A key recommendation from the working group calls for the University to serve as a common ground for key stakeholders such as local governments, nonprofits and anchor institutions, as well as flex its academic muscles to contribute research on public health and violence prevention.

The group has invited guest speakers knowledgeable in the fields of public safety and sociology to help inform the group’s potential actions.

Guests included Jason Purnell, a Brown School professor studying how socioeconomic factors affect health outcomes, and staffers from the Brown School’s Evaluation Center, which partners with organizations to assess the efficacy of their social programs.

The final report is due on Martin’s desk at the end of December. Payton said once it reaches the chancellor’s office, he will have total control over when to act on the recommendations and publicize them to the student body.

According to Payton, the group has not yet figured out a mechanism to test the effectiveness of their solutions once they are implemented, but he said a proper implementation will require constant student input.

“I can’t imagine tonight being the last opportunity to have a dialogue with the students about this,” Payton said.

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