WU public safety committee releases report recommending removal of WUPD officers from mental health calls, increased measures for transparency and accountability

and | Senior News Editors

Washington University’s public safety committee released a report calling for mental health crisis response workers to replace WUPD officers on mental health calls, as well as steps to improve transparency and accountability.

The committee, composed mainly of University students, staff and faculty, was formed in September 2020 as one of multiple initiatives announced by Chancellor Andrew Martin aimed at promoting racial equity on campus.

“We worked over the course of four months really with a focus on listening and learning,” Stephanie Kurtzman, Director of the Gephardt Institute and co-chair of the committee, said. “We came with no predetermined answers or even predetermined questions—we really wanted to understand from the full Danforth campus community what their experience was and is with policing and with public safety.”

The committee’s work culminated in three recommendations: reimagine the University’s response to mental health incidents, create sustained opportunities for the campus community to provide feedback regarding public safety practices and improve public safety communications to focus on accessibility and deliberate outreach.

Executive Vice Chancellor for Civic Affairs and Strategic Planning Henry Webber, who commissioned the committee and received the report, said that University administrators were certainly supportive of the recommendations.

“We listened to a lot, and what we heard—including from folks who are underrepresented on campus—was an overwhelming positive experience and perception of the police department,” Kurtzman said.

However, the report also included survey data showing that certain demographics—particularly students of color and queer, transgender and nonbinary students—have been far less comfortable than the average student in their interactions with the police.

68% of white respondents reported being comfortable with interactions they had with WUPD, while only 50% of Black respondents and 55% of Hispanic/Latino respondents said the same.

There were also significant disparities based on gender identity, with 15% of non-binary respondents, 17% of transgender respondents, 61% of women and 74% of men reporting comfort in their interactions with WUPD.

Overall, only 45% of survey respondents agreed that the presence of WUPD on and around campus made them feel safe.

“I think it can always go up,” Kurtzman said when asked about these figures. “It should absolutely go up, and the ideal of equity would be that we would see data points that are not different based on people’s identities, and so no doubt, there’s more work to do.”

“The single most disturbing thing in the report was the very low level of satisfaction among queer, gay [and] trans students,” Webber said. “The numbers were really disturbing, and clearly, while it is not directly a recommendation, I think that everybody who reads the report looks at the table and says we have a lot of work to do.”

Over the past several months, students have been advocating for the defunding, disarming and complete abolition of WUPD. While one of the report’s primary recommendations is in large part about gathering and listening to student concerns, the committee decided against taking steps to defund WUPD.

“Over the past several years, there have been calls from groups of students and others to either disarm, reduce the budget or otherwise restrict WUPD,” Webber said. “There also have been very significant calls, usually associated with periods of significant crime waves, to significantly increase the WUPD budget… The calls to eliminate the police, while they exist and there certainly are people who believe that, are, let us say, a minority point of view.”

“[Abolition and defunding of WUPD] was brought up and discussed,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Support and Wellness Kirk Dougher wrote in a statement to Student Life. “Many defunding movements are about repurposing funding and the sense of safety students might feel. Having an armed respondent makes many students feel nervous, for very good and historical reasons. The committee discussed the necessary components of what only the PD is able to do and what areas mission-creep has made the responsible for.”

One element of this “mission-creep” that the committee identified was the role that armed WUPD officers often play on mental health calls.

“Such a prevalent concern among so many people was the risk of negative impact on a mental health crisis situation when armed police show up to it, so I think we can be models for a different way to respond to mental health crises and hopefully that can be a guide to other universities as implementation goes forward,” Kurtzman said.

“When there’s a problem, people typically call the police department,” WUPD Chief Mark Glenn said. “And I think this report really solidifies that we [should] take the opportunity to see if there’s a better way to handle these calls, if there’s a better resource that can help out immediately. So I’ve already started working with Kirk Dougher reviewing this particular recommendation, and starting to put together some kind of framework”

The report also called for the University to earmark funds for mental health crisis response workers, who would be available 24/7 to respond to mental health calls in place of WUPD officers. However, the extent to which these workers would be associated with WUPD remains to be determined.

“There can be an inherent conflict between the investigative mission of the PD and the disclosure needs of mental health and medical responders,” Dougher wrote. “Those providers do not want to be making important decisions that [are] devoid of information because the students are wary or omitting information. Of course, the investigative role has an impact on on-going community safety as well and shouldn’t be overlooked as also including a health role.”

Some specific proposals aimed at creating new avenues for feedback included facilitating discussions with students about their experiences with WUPD, an online mechanism for individualized feedback, making the public safety survey annual and creating a permanent version of the public safety committee which would continue to meet and provide a platform for ongoing discussions about WUPD’s role on campus.

“I really appreciate the candidness of many of the committee members, including faculty, staff, former students and current students, but especially the current students,” Glenn said. “They were pretty honest. Good and bad… I think this sets up a good starting point for us. And I think what’s really important is developing mechanisms for good, candid, honest feedback.”

Kurtzman agreed that the committee’s recommendations are the first step in a long term process to reimagine public safety at Washington University.

“This is one piece of an ongoing process,” Kurtzman said. “We really clearly recommended that this be a process essentially of continuous improvement. I have a lot of confidence and hope that it will be, and I would encourage those who really care about this topic to continue staying involved.”

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