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A conversation with Michael Davis, Chief of Police

Can you tell us about the university’s police department?

The Northeastern Police Department is a full-service police department with an investigative unit, a robust patrol division and also areas that focus on emergency management and continuity of operations – fire safety, security technologies – so it’s a department that is engineered to serve the entire enterprise that is Northeastern. We are an organization recognizing the contemporary world that we live in, recognizing our charge to ensure the safety and security of all Northeastern personnel – student, staff, faculty and community members at large. We exist in Boston; we exist in a neighborhood, so it’s our responsibility to protect all life, in particular that which exists on our campus.

Our community outreach has increased exponentially, our social media footprint has increased exponentially, we’ve reached thousands of people in ways that we previously hadn’t.

Our acumen around international safety and security has also increased. Our ability to think tactically has increased as well. We’ve brought on folks who have deep tactical experience. Our deputy chief, for example, has experience at the Miami-Dade Airport where he turned that airport around from one of the worst airports in the nation to one of the best.

My own background, being an urban police officer for a number of years and a police chief in the sixth-largest city of Minnesota brings a depth of experience here. So, when you look at the needs of the institution with the experience and acumen that we bring to the table, new tactics, new approaches are going to evolve all the time.

There’s been a lot of focus in recent days on tactical weapons. How do those fit into NUPD’s overall strategy?

We have what we call the “instant containment team.” It is a team of officers that are specially trained, at a higher level than our already well-trained officers, to respond to an incident. What the team is looking to accomplish is to contain an incident. Mitigate the impact on the institution, and really that means saving lives and preventing obviously further catastrophe from occurring on this campus.

But it’s not just that. We hope that our work, through engagement of the community, the way our officers interact with folks throughout the campus community, is preventive in nature. Look, if it’s happening on your campus or your city, you’ve already lost. So the idea is not to have quick reactions only; the idea is to think strategically and think about ways that you can be preventative. So what’s been lost through all this coverage about focusing just on the weapon is the total program that we are embarking on, which obviously begins with the training and development of our own staff, but will also lead to a continual training of our entire campus community around the areas of situational awareness and to detect behavioral anomalies – things that could represent a threat to the institution or personal safety. That is the broader picture.

Response time is important in high-level emergency situations, particularly those involving active shooters. Can you explain the relevance?

Much has been talked about with respect to the five-minute time frame. So the question is, “What does the Northeastern University Police Department do in the five minutes?,” and we think it’s our responsibility to be able to competently respond to whatever happens in that first five minutes. Of course we are surrounded by a huge public safety infrastructure and we work well with Boston in that regard, but we’re here on campus and we need to be prepared.

How are university police departments different from municipal agencies?

People think about universities across the country, and not every university has a police department. In the Midwest where I’m from, very few universities have police departments. They all have security staff, so people think about it in terms of the lowest common denominator of security, kind of the guard at the front gate. That’s not the way it is here. Not just our university, but MIT, BU, BC and other universities have actual police officers trained to do the job as a police officer and quite frankly, they take all the risks that any police officer does, as we learned through what happened at MIT with Sean Collier. These men and women dedicate themselves to their craft like any municipal police officer, state police officer, dedicates themselves to their own craft. Anything we do of a tactical nature will include the most robust training available. We take it seriously. When you’re talking about preparing yourselves for the potential for a catastrophic event like this, it is all about preparation and it is all about practice. It’s not just about handing out weapons or handing out tools. You can have the best tools in the hands of someone inexperienced and not be able to create much with it. It’s not about the tools, it’s about the skill and training behind it.

What can you tell us about NUPD’s training?

The training never stops. So when people say, ‘They’re well-trained’ it sounds like there’s a period at the end of the sentence. There is no period at the end of the training sentence. We work with our law enforcement partners, including state police, and we develop continual training which happens in perpetuity. That’s what any competent police agency does, and that’s what we are. Quite frankly, with my background, being from a municipality where I ran an organization that had a full-service SWAT team – complete with negotiators and what I would say was the best-performing SWAT team in the state of Minnesota – I would not field a team that was under-equipped or unprepared.

We are developing a robust curriculum right now, which is going to be rolled out soon next semester that is really going to be geared towards different campus populations. For example, situational awareness and being able to detect behavioral anomalies. It’s really about creating this culture of preparedness, along with our own officers executing that on a regular basis. We put a premium on engagement, officers engaging with the public every single shift, having those conversations with our community members.

Community outreach is not something that’s a program; it’s not something that happens in a silo. It is a strategy; it is an approach; it is a philosophy in how we engage our work. So it’s about continual engagement; it’s about training, and it’s about learning. What we know about the world today is that you can never know enough. You must continually seek to understand so you understand the context by which things exist, so you can respond appropriately with the contemporary training that is necessary.

Could universities do without having their own police departments?

There are 18,000 police departments in this country. There is a reason that the policing model is created that way; it’s so that things are done commensurate with the specific needs of that community. University policing is no different. What we need is different than what BU needs, or what MIT needs. Things that are fundamental, but it’s not all the same. It goes to the reason that we exist in the first place. All of these universities could opt to rely on the municipality to deliver police services. So could the transit police. So could a whole list of other police agencies. But the need at one point arose for these institutions to have their own police departments, and that means we have to continually learn about the environment in which our particular set of constituents, our particular community, exists in so that we can keep them safe. If you don’t keep current, you become irrelevant. It’s like any innovation. If it doesn’t keep current with the contemporary needs, it becomes irrelevant and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Northeastern is a large, urban campus with many logistical complexities. How does it benefit from NUPD being on site?

There are some things that are uniquely Northeastern. We are on nearly 80 acres, we have 80-some buildings. We have a campus that is interwoven into the community here and that presents a unique set of challenges. So, that puts a premium on the familiarity of police personnel to the campus. We’re not just one address – you know, just pull up to the building and here’s the school. It is way more complex than that. It’s understanding how buildings are laid out; it’s understanding how to respond and prevent egress or encourage egress if we’re trying to evacuate a building. It is leveraging our security technology, which are robust, to be able to respond competently. It’s not just people jumping out with weapons going to one spot – it’s about responding in a way that integrates the complexity of this campus, or any campus for that matter. So, it takes a strategy and it takes an approach that is built on becoming better all the time and building in efficiencies.

You talked about NUPD’s work and impact having a global footprint. Can you explain?

Our students are in 130-plus countries in the world, and just as we are responsible for and concerned about the safety and well-being of students on this campus. We are equally concerned about the well-being of students that are located abroad – either through co-op, a Dialogue, the NUin program – you name it. Through the NUPD, we’ve built up an emergency response construct with our partners throughout the University to make sure that students are kept safe, that faculty are kept safe and that programs operate as they are intended wherever they exist.

In a city, you don’t deal with people overseas. We do. We have just as much concern for their well-being as we are about the folks that are on campus every single day. It shines a light on the complexity of the work that we do and how that’s ever-evolving. That’s really our charge.

We have an international security team here, with a construct by which folks can rapidly get engaged with us and/or authorities overseas to get what they need when they need it. Students can contact us, which they have, and we work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, wherever students are in the world to make sure that we can deal with whatever is going on and we have dealt with some pretty complex issues. But it’s made us better and that’s something that’s really become a strong competency of ours, is to be able to respond effectively.

If you take the long view, what’s next?

This university is growing and morphing all the time. It’s growing on a trajectory that causes this really rapid expanse, so we need to be positioned to be able to grow along with that, and that’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

Michael Davis has more than 20 years of experience in law enforcement. He was a police officer for 16 years with the city of Minneapolis, and was chief of police for the city of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. He has received numerous awards and commendations for his service. Davis also serves as a police practice consultant for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and is currently the Strategic Site Liaison for the city of Detroit as part of the Violence Reduction Network.