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Wash U Reconsiders Role Of Police On Campus

A Washington University police officer engages with students on campus.
Washington University
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A Washington University police officer engages with students on campus.

Amid national conversations on police brutality, one St. Louis university is reevaluating the role of police on campus.

Washington University is shifting its approach to responding to mental health emergencies by taking police out of the equation. This fall, the university plans to implement a team of mental health professionals — who will be available 24 hours — to respond to sensitive incidents.

“All of this is done with a sincere commitment by leadership to invest and reallocate funds in the right way to make sure we’re focused on the things that our students and community need to feel safe both physically and psychologically,” said Shantay Bolton, executive vice chancellor for administration and chief administrative officer.

The decision comes after the release of recommendations from the school’s Public Safety Committee report on how to improve relationships between police and students on campus.

The formulation of the committee was a direct response to the police killing of George Floyd last spring. Executive Vice Chancellor of Civic Affairs and Strategic Planning Hank Webber organized the task force to better understand community concerns.

The committee’s surveys found that minority student groups on campus were less likely to feel comfortable in their interactions with the Washington University Police Department. While 68% of white students felt comfortable or very comfortable, Black students surveyed at 50%, Hispanic students at 55% and Asian students at 60%.

“Our community said to us, the leadership of the university, that they think the best thing we can do for the safety of our university is to bring more targeted mental health support for those members of our community that are in crisis over these issues,” Webber said.

Wash U police gather together on the university's campus in July 2019.
Washington University
Wash U police officers gather on campus in July 2019.

Washington University isn’t the only campus instigating conversations surrounding policing.

Christopher Sullivan, University of Missouri-St. Louis’ director of health, counseling and disability services, said the university is constantly reevaluating how to approach mental health and policing on campus.

The conversations have been going on for years, spanning back before the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, Sullivan said. UMSL has been intentional about evaluating the relationship between students and law enforcement, he said.

“Are we always right on top of this and do exactly what we need to do in every single circumstance? No, we’re not,” Sullivan said. “But I really think we’re well positioned to continue to provide support and have open-ended conversations between the different resources of support and law enforcement on campus.”

Both university leaders admit finding the best approach to policing is a difficult task. Webber foresees a long road of trial and error.

“I think this will take a period of time to implement, and I think it may well involve some experimentation,” Webber said. “How to do this exactly right is something that nobody really knows.”

One of the pathways to improving relationships could be more police training, Webber said.

Campus police departments all receive crisis intervention training at Washington University, UMSL, St. Louis University and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

The director of counseling services at SIUE, Jessica Ulrich, believes this training allows police officers to adequately respond to mental health emergencies when counselors are out of the office.

“I actually find our officers more responsive than the city officers we come into contact with,” Ulrich said. “They go above and beyond to make sure they’re reaching out to students in need.”

University officials at several institutions in the St. Louis region said they collaborate with mental health professionals in order to support students — a key to student safety.

“Police officers can really benefit from the perspective of the mental health professionals to see that a lot of the difficulties and circumstances that they may encounter may have a mental health aspect to it,” Sullivan said. “It’s also for police officers to have a more open, connecting perspective on how to be working with the public.”

Follow Kendall on Twitter: @kcrawfish33

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