Reimagining Public Safety at GW

April 13, 2023

Dear Members of the George Washington University Community,

The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff has long been a critical priority. In recent years we have made considerable progress in strengthening public safety through improvements to areas such as access control, emergency notifications, and the continuing evolution of our GW Police Department.

The university has equipped buildings, residential units, and classrooms with electronic access, allowing us to quickly and efficiently secure building doors remotely through a single platform. Faculty are able to secure classroom doors electronically while simultaneously signaling for police response via emergency lockdown buttons within classrooms. Our new emergency notification system allows dispatchers to activate alerts nearly immediately from a single platform in the event of a life-threatening emergency. We also have completed other safety enhancements over the past few years, such as upgrading and adding security cameras and creating active shooter protocols and trainings.

GW Police Chief James Tate has prioritized accountability, transparency, and trust. He has taken steps to increase communication and community engagement, particularly with students; improve officer training, including introduction of de-escalation and implicit bias training; improve response to mental health concerns; and implement the use of body-worn cameras.

In prioritizing these important enhancements, we have closely monitored campus safety trends and considered the concerning rise in gun violence across the country, potential risks to our community, and our ability to respond to serious threats to our campus.

After more than a year of careful consideration and deliberation, review of safety data and best practices, and input from experts, the Board of Trustees has directed the university administration to develop an implementation plan for arming specially trained GWPD supervisory officers. GWPD officers are sworn police officers, but none of them currently carry firearms.

I would like to share more with you about our next steps and views on arming in the context of a broad public safety and security strategy.

  • First, and most importantly, we believe that any actions we take with respect to arming should be aligned with a holistic strategy for safety on our campuses.
  • While we are not aware of any heightened threat to our university, in recent years there have been too many tragic instances of mass gun violence in communities and on college campuses. In the past several months alone, we have noted with deep concern shooting incidents at educational institutions, including at Michigan State University, the University of Virginia, and an elementary school in Nashville. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been more than 140 mass shootings already in 2023.
  • The Board also recognizes the need for arming given the university’s densely populated setting and the importance of having individuals involved in incidents who are familiar with and directly connected to our community. Immediacy of response to life-threatening incidents is critical, but whenever weapons are involved, unarmed officers cannot respond and must rely instead on other armed law enforcement. Our supervisory officers, who are stationed on campus and know its geography best, are a very important part of emergency response, especially during times of increased calls for service requiring the attention of our local partner agencies elsewhere in the District. When weapons are involved, minutes matter.
  • While understanding that some may have strong views about public safety strategy and the need for arming, the Board noted its great responsibility, in its oversight role, to protect the safety of the GW community. Most comparable universities nationally and within the Washington metropolitan area are armed.
  • Only GWPD’s most highly qualified supervisory officers who have met specific training requirements, including formal police academy training and specialized firearms training, will be armed. The university will form a review board to provide additional oversight.
  • The university is working with 21CP Solutions, Inc., to help guide its planning. 21CP includes subject matter experts representing policy, academia, civil rights law, and police accountability, and includes former D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
  • Guided by GW community engagement, university administration will submit a proposed arming implementation plan for the Board’s consideration later this spring and, pending approval, provide updates on next steps at that time.

We will launch an effort to gain community input and feedback on implementation, as well as other priorities for reimagining public safety at our university. We will also discuss this topic tomorrow with the Faculty Senate. Our engagement will continue with the broader GW community, with opportunities to share feedback and input, including through submission of comments and questions via the GWPD website.

I am grateful for the dedication and commitment of our safety professionals and GWPD officers, and I am proud of the way individual members of our community support and care for each other. I look forward to engaging with you as we continue our efforts to strengthen safety on our campus.

Sincerely yours,

Mark S. Wrighton