Last week, “Coffee with a Cop” invited the community to meet with UMass Lowell, Lowell Police Department, and National Park Service police. We took advantage of the event, spearheaded by UML, and the free coffee and pastries, provided by the University Crossing Starbucks.
The remarkably informal event was a good opportunity to meet with UMass Lowell officers in particular–dozens were in attendance. We talked with many. One said it was nice to be able to talk with actual people and suggested that patrol officers often only talk to “criminals” or “victims.” The sentiment was echoed by another officer, who enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with others and often stops locally for coffee. This was the goal of the event, part of a nationwide program started in Hawthorne, California:
This informal contact increases trust in police officers as individuals which is foundation to building partnerships and engaging in community problem solving. – Coffee with Cop Website
Our longest discussion was with UML Police Chief Randolph Brashears. He believes the big story at UMass Lowell is its expansive growth, with not only more students admitted, but higher admission standards. However, the most interesting story was one of the evolving relationship between the three police departments of Lowell. Only a few years prior, in his words, there used to be a “lot of friction” between departments. In only four or so years, regular CompStat meetings improved communication and the forces have begun cooperating in new ways.
Chief Brashears mentioned that the Lowell Police Superintendent once called him late at night about a problem, and he investigated and resolved the issue that day. He gave me the impression that years ago, that phone call wouldn’t have been made and would lead to festering animosity between the two departments over what might have even been a misunderstanding.
Another interesting theme came up: UMass Lowell Police have some flexibility in how they handle student-related crimes, which have led to a reduced number of repeat offenders. The Lowell Police Department will refer student-related crimes to UML Police. The UML Police can refer the offending student to student services, who are able to give an academic penalty such as suspension or expulsion that are a more powerful deterrent than a night in jail, but doesn’t give the student a criminal record that might damage their future. In addition, UML Police can and do follow up with students and neighbors the day after minor crimes such as violation of noise ordinance during a party. Several of the officers credited this kind of diligence to virtually eliminating repeat offenders.
Every officer asked us what our perception of the student population was–if they were giving us problems. We had to answer honestly that although we’re relatively near UML Inn and Conference Center, we had no student-related concerns. Chief Brashears partially credited this to the nature of UML students: many commute in, and many are first-generation students who are focused on their studies, not parties. It was an interesting perspective. For our part, we asked about whether the students felt safe in Lowell, and an officer said he believed that the students had a perception of crime in Lowell that was probably worse than the reality.
Finally, we had an interesting conversation with Chief Brashears about the issue of sexual violence on campus. There are few reported incidents, but he acknowledged that it is a crime that is usually underreported. He did mention there were many semi-anonymous ways to report on campus, including to clergy, student services, and other places, a full list available on the web here. We discussed the fine line between advocating safe behavior and victim-blaming, which could warrant a post all on its own.
Reflecting on the event, it’s notable that CompStat has proven to be a useful tool to improve interdepartmental communication. I understood CompStat as essentially collection of crime statistics, but it’s actually a process that began in 1994 in New York City and has since been adapted in many other cities, including Lowell. It involves the collection and analysis of data, but also development of strategies, rapid implementation (such as deploying additional officers to hotspots or contacting derelict property owners), and follow-up. I now believe it’s a natural place to improve cooperation, as interdepartmental strategies may be generated.
This interdepartmental communication and community outreach is terribly important. Questions about the appropriate role of university police have come up in other communities, and I wonder if the discussion and cooperation between the three police forces in Lowell have headed off controversy by assigning each force to its most appropriate role. However, we didn’t actually get a chance to talk to NPS or LPD officers at the event (although it looked like a valuable opportunity for them to communicate with each other and other community members). Hopefully we can follow up with those forces in the future!