Saturday Night Fever: six hours on the beat with DPS

February 5, 2009

The Department of Public Safety has attracted its share of drama in the past couple of years. Contract disputes over wages, accusations of ineffective enforcement following robberies and assaults, along with calls for-and outcries against-arming DPS officers with batons, mace, and protective vests after two assaults in the fall of 2006 that put four officers in the hospital, are just some of the issues that have nagged the Department.
DPS has also garnered ill-will from some of the student body by increasing focus on patrols, an initiative some say is intended more to placate neighbors than serve the interests of students. Increased patrols by DPS officers have been one of the most visible changes to the Department, a move made largely in response to an uptick of crime in the Georgetown area.

Maintaining a delicate balance between protectors and persecutors is not easy; DPS Director Jeffrey van Slyke commented on his force’s approach in an e-mail, writing that he encourages officers “to take every opportunity they have to interact with students as a learning moment … students must understand that they are in a process of becoming self-sufficient, which requires developing and maintaining a security conscious awareness.”
This past weekend, I shadowed several DPS officers on patrol, to see the typical Georgetown weekend from the perspective of the officers paid to keep students safe. What follows is an account of my night on the force.

-9:55 p.m.-

When I arrive at the Department of Public Safety’s office, located on the first floor of Village C West, the dispatchers inform me through the plastic window that my contact is out on a call. For ten minutes now, I roll around in a brown leather chair in the institutionally white waiting room, examining the various health literature and stains on the floor.

I am called to a desk inside and introduced to the officer I will be accompanying for the next hour or so. The bespectacled Officer Hunter gives me a nervous greeting, and we’re off, for an hour of polite small-talk.

-10:00 p.m.-

“You’re probably not going to see too much with me,” Officer Hunter warns a few minutes after we hop into his patrol car, parked outside the offices. He’s right; we talk about his usual patrols, which he describes as helping out sick or injured students. His shift ends at 11 p.m., which is when the action usually starts.

We loop around campus several times, drawing long suspicious stares from passing students. We get no calls, but I learn that Officer Hunter, like many DPS officers, has a degree in criminal justice.

-10:50 p.m.-

We return to Village C for the 11:00 p.m. shift change. The officers are in the briefing room.
I overhear them talking-first about the great money to be made part-time at McDonalds, then about me: “Walk … walk … walk him so much he’ll quit.” Luckily, I brought my walking shoes.

-11:15 p.m.-

A DPS officer strides quickly through the waiting room, pausing at the door. “Foot patrol? Come on.”

We leave hurriedly on Foot Beat 1, covering the Northeast portion of campus: ICC, Reiss, Henle, Darnall, and St. Mary’s. My new partner introduces himself as Officer Jackson, which he later clarifies as L. Jackson, so as not to be confused with another Jackson on the force. He never gives me his first name, nor does he look at me for the first few hours of our time together. Later on, however, he cracks his big smile-framed by his salt-and-pepper goatee-and holds forth on topics varying from religious dogma to a private business venture, the details of which he declines to share.

-11:35 p.m.-

We check in with a student guard in Darnall to see if anything suspicious has occurred. He mentions that a number of students walked past while he was distracted with another large group of people.

“A lot of these students-they don’t care, they’re selfish,” Jackson says. “It’s all about me, me, me. They’re very impatient, until they get hurt or something happens to them. And then they’re the first ones to come after you, ‘Why didn’t you do your job? Help us!'”

I ask why we don’t go after the offenders. Jackson tells me it’s impractical: he would have to radio for back-up and wait for the sergeant on duty to arrive. In this case, the student guard didn’t know what room they were going to, so the point was moot

Jackson further explains that a typical DPS Saturday night is spent fielding a lot of personal illness calls-the preferred euphemism for staggering, vomiting drunks-or investigating suspicious person calls. But so far, all is quiet.
-11:45 p.m.-

As we walk through the dingy loading area between Darnall and St. Mary’s, yanking on doors, I ask Officer Jackson about the distribution of what the officers call the “equipment”-a controversial collapsible baton and mace.
Jackson emphasizes that the arms are used only in situations of of personal endangerment to the officer and others. I later learn from another officer that Jackson was one of the three officers injured in the brawl that erupted between Henle and Reiss in the fall of 2006.

According to the Voice article, three officers came to the aid of a student who was being beaten by a group of six to eight males. The assailants attacked the officer with their fists and a blunt object; one officer was taken away unconscious. Officer Jackson suffered a possible spleen injury.

Since then, the area covered by Foot Beat 1-where the brawl erupted-has calmed down considerably, he tells me. Nothing like the chaos of that fateful night.

-12:18 a.m.-

Three girls walk out of the gate to Henle’s fishbowl, hushing each other with “Oh my God, DPS, oh my God,” a refrain I would hear often during the night. Jackson intercepts them.

A girl in a short blue dress stands with a tall can of Bud Light in her hand.
“I know you know better,” Jackson says in a fatherly tone. He has a tendency to start his sentences this way.

The girl looks alternately bemused and amused as Jackson warns her about how less tolerant MPD is of open container violations. Her friends, one of whom is wearing a Tinker Bell costume in 25-degree weather, look at me in disbelief, then continue on their merry way.

“That’s something that’s very common on Friday and Saturday nights,” he says as we resume our post by the Leavey Bridge. “Youthful rebellion, wanna test the system, whatever you wanna call it. Wanna be a rebel … who knows.”

“That went well, pretty well,” Jackson continues, mentioning that some male students tend to become very aggressive in the same situation.
“I’m trying to help them out, keep them out of trouble. The Metropolitan Police Department of D.C. don’t play.”

-12:30 a.m.-

We leave our post, continuing on foot patrol. A group of girls walk down the Henle ramp, screaming “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” a capella.

As we walk around St. Mary’s, with no students around, I think back to an earlier question I asked the other officers: what’s your primary responsibility?
Jackson and Hunter answered without hesitation: their job is to protect the students. “Then why do you spend so much time checking and guarding property?” I ask

(I’m mostly just sick of watching him try to open locked doors in deserted areas.)
Officer Jackson first reminds me that it’s an open campus in the city of Washington, D.C., so you have to guard against the criminal element-break-ins and the like.

“We do constantly check on students also,” he says. “It’s a balance, it’s all about balance. See we could constantly check on students, but students could easily complain that we have a Big Brother kind of environment, always watching them.”

“We look out for people without always looking at them, making them uncomfortable,” he adds.

-12:50 a.m.-

We’re strolling through Henle, silencing students with our very presence. A student holding a red cup moves to go inside as we approach.

Jackson’s “Going inside?” is met with a quick “Yeah,” and that’s that.
“We enforce the law, but we don’t go overboard and be fanatical, fascist,” Jackson reflects.

I see this balance in action throughout the night, and an unwavering civility toward the students.

DPS may now have batons, but their principal weapons are still “tact, maximum use of people skills,” Jackson says. And a lot of tolerance for drunken buffoons.

-12:54 a.m.-

A visibly drunk white male in a red sweater leaves an apartment block in the courtyard of Henle. I notice him walk around the stoop and attempts to urinate.

“Sir … sir … please,” Officer Jackson pleads. “Don’t you have a bathroom inside, sir? A men’s room, sir? Gotta be civil, sir …”
We both have to laugh.

“Well, hopefully he doesn’t turn into another personal illness statistic … but he’s already getting there.”

The student hurriedly walks out of the courtyard.

-1:04 a.m.-

As we make our way through the alley of Henle, abuzz with the sounds of a few small parties, an intoxicated male sporting a boarding school lacrosse t-shirt heckles us as we pass: “That’s a PARTY right there! Somebody call DPS, that’s ridiculous!”

“The smart aleck geniuses back there like to make wise-crack remarks,” Jackson says. “But they’d be the first ones to cry to us when they get beat up, when they get stolen from.”

-1:15 a.m.-

A small gathering in Henle with loud music is using their living room door to let in friends. Jackson asks about it, but they try to redirect his attention to a party upstairs.

“For your own safety, it’s not wise just to let people in …” Jackson gets in, before the partiers talk over him about the partiers upstairs. The students are receptive, if drunk, and eventually thank him, as Jackson explains he’s just looking out for them.

“It wasn’t the noise, not hating, continue partying,” he says.
We head to Reiss to warm-up.

-1:34 a.m.-

Through the windows, I can see the students streaming back toward Henle. We sit at the ends of the radiator and talk over the hum of a vending machine about the campus’s relatively lenient alcohol policies, particularly in comparison to his alma mater, University of South Florida.

-1:41 a.m.-

After receiving a call for back-up, we meet with Officer Parham-whose soft-spoken manner belies his large proportions-on the stairs of Leavey. He has a list of registered parties-there shouldn’t be any in Henle, though there have been no noise complaints.

By this time, the students seem to be doing us a favor, dispersing on their own. The officers decide to wait until 2, the time when registered parties are supposed to shut down.

-1:43 a.m.-

Suddenly we hear a loud, repeated banging from beneath the bridge-a potential crime! I scramble with the officers to see what’s going on.
We canvass the area with no results.

-1:57 a.m.-

“Time to shut ‘em down.”
At Jackson’s word, we stride through Henle and rap on the same living room door as before, music as loud as ever. A girl comes to the door, peaks through the shade, and squeals “DPS!” as she runs away. The music dies.

Someone else comes to the door, and the officers calmly ask them to turn down their music. “It’s 2 o’clock, time to shut it down,” Jackson says.

We step away from the building and see the party upstairs still raging. The officers swipe in as a trickle of people come out the door. “Alright, here we go,” says Jackson.

From above, I hear an agitated male student screaming “Shut the fuck up” over and over. As we go up the stairs, students flood past us, careful not to make eye contact.

Per a signed confidentiality agreement I signed with DPS, I wait outside of the apartment. A very drunk student walks past me.

“John. You want my name? It’s John. And I don’t approve of this party,” he says. His friends push him toward the exit, down the stairs.

A male student sitting on the stairs outside the apartment asks about the pen and paper in my hands.

“I’m writing a story, on patrol with …”
He cuts me off. “The cops? You’re writing a story about how cops bust up parties?”

“Oh, maybe,” I say.

“You want an interview?” His girlfriend punches him and calmly tells him to “stop.”

The apartment is now deserted; the residents thank the officers and wish them a goodnight.

We walk through the Henle alley, and I wait outside the living room of another party.

The RA hurries up and worriedly asks why DPS just went inside, saying their party was registered. Inside, the students try to shoot the shit with the officers about Pittsburgh and the impending Super Bowl.

Jackson and Parham step back into the cloudless night sky. Our work is done; Henle Village is a ghost town.

-2:23 a.m.-

The three of us stand watch over Henle courtyard. A call comes in for back-up: a group of students have been caught by an RA with alcohol in Harbin.

“Harbin Hall been actin’ up,” Parham says, referencing an assault just before Christmas break.

-2:38 a.m.-

“Still on patrol, with a view,” Jackson says, back in Reiss for “self-preservation.” I can no longer feel my face, so I welcome the break.
Campus is now quiet, with few if any students passing by.

-2:50 a.m.-

A call comes in: time to sweep the library.

Unbeknownst to most students, the library closes at 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Jackson and I join a group of officers, looking for any remaining students.

-2:58 a.m.-

We get out of the elevator on the fifth floor, joined by 4 other officers.
“Library closed,” Jackson shouts as we wander through the deserted stacks.
One of the officers asks me to attribute all of their quotes to the “A-team,” the night shift that does all the real work.

“Thas right! Let ‘em know,” another officer adds.

“We’re not getting reports like we usually get reports,” says the first officer once we’re back in the elevator. “I’m telling you it just died down, dra-ma-tic-ally,” emphasizing every syllable of the last word.

“Ain’t no kids outside. Must be the weather-or because we’re in the recession. One of the two. Ain’t nobody outside for the past couple nights. Usually Friday, Saturday … you know, it’s jumpin’!”

One of the officers guesses that the parents of the students are asking them to cut back on the partying in these lean times.

“A ton of personal illnesses,” Jackson adds. “Not this weekend.”
We finish clearing the library of the few beleaguered stragglers and walk back to the lobby.

-3:14 a.m.-

We get the call for a personal illness and jog to Darnall. GERMS is tied up, so DPS acts as first-responders. A DCFD firetruck pulls up to the building as we enter. A DCFD ambulance arrives shortly thereafter, bringing the girl from her bed to the hospital on a stretcher about half an hour later.

Her concerned roommate meets us at the door. I feel increasingly uncomfortable as time passes, a voyeur to this girl’s suffering. I stand out of the way and put away my notepad, unable to do much of anything.

-3:45 a.m.-

We are finally cleared from the scene, after waiting for the ambulance to depart, taking the short trip to the emergency room at the hospital.

-3:55 a.m.-

Jackson and I are back at it again, checking the basement of St. Mary’s for interlopers. We surprise a student in the 24/7 computer lab, whom we had just kicked out of the library.

-4:01 a.m.-

Still pulling on doors. I have now been on patrol for six hours, two less than the eight hour shifts pulled by the officers. I notice all the officers wear different kinds of black boots, which must be warmer than my sneakers, because I cannot wait to get my feet into bed.

-4:07 a.m.-

I leave Jackson at ICC. Campus is deserted.

-4:10 a.m.-

Back home, safe and warm. The officers on the night shift still have three hours to go.

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J Reger

J, Really enjoyed your inciteful article. Not much has changed since I was in college other than it sounds like they are now a little more lenient. Dad

Michael Byerly

hilarious. and so eloquent.