Less than a year after it was formed, the Northeastern University Police Department Advisory Board has helped to establish greater transparency and opened up access to policing on campus. And, board members say, they’re just getting started.
In the fall, in close cooperation with the advisory board, the NUPD created a new feedback system to handle complaints, commendations, and requests for information. The system was designed to make the flow of communication more accessible for community members. This month, the department started making publicly available data related to use of force, arrests, and complaints—all as a direct result of collaboration with the advisory board.
“Having worked in a large municipality, a midsize municipality, and now a university, I can say that what we’re doing here is a great example of what can happen within a police department,” says Michael Davis, chief of the NUPD. “The degree to which people are able to participate constructively makes this whole process, and makes us, better.”
Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun announced the formation of the advisory board in June 2020, one of several actions the university would undertake “to do more to confront discrimination, and to achieve our ambitions for diversity, inclusion, and equality on our campuses,” he wrote in a message to the Northeastern community.
Composed of students, faculty, staff, and community members, the advisory board was charged with increasing trust and communication and creating shared goals between the NUPD and the Northeastern community, including residents of the neighborhoods around the Boston campus.
“I think the intention behind the creation of this advisory board was really good,” says Louiza Wise, a fifth-year engineering student who sits on the board. “We struggled to really get things going in the beginning, but once we found a groove, it’s been productive.”
The board held several town hall-style meetings through late summer and early fall that were attended by “a couple hundred people across all the sessions,” says Jack McDevitt, chair of the NUPD Advisory Board and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern.
“What we heard from people was that they weren’t sure how to get information from the NUPD, and they weren’t sure how to file a complaint or give a commendation,” McDevitt says. “So, we put in place a decentralized system for giving feedback that makes it easier for folks to do so.”
The department and the NUPD Community Advisory Board have set up different reporting stations at several key offices throughout the Boston campus. Faculty and staff at those offices have been trained to shepherd students, faculty, staff, and community members through the reporting process.
Those offices include: the Office for University Equity and Compliance; the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute; the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution; the Office of City and Community Engagement; the Asian American Center; and the office of Northeastern’s We Care Support Network, part of the Division of Student Affairs.
People wishing to provide feedback can also do so directly, via a form on the NUPD website.
The advisory board also heard from people who wanted better access to data from the NUPD, says Ayanna Miller-Smith, a doctoral student of criminal justice who sits on the data subcommittee of the board.
“Our priority was absolutely getting the data out there,” Miller-Smith says, “and to make it available in a digestible way.”
In response to that effort, this month the NUPD made publicly available use-of-force data, which is collected for any incident during which an officer must use lethal or nonlethal techniques in self-defense or to maintain safety, according to the NUPD handbook. Data related to arrests and complaints also will be made available in the coming weeks.
The use-of-force data show that in the past four years (the timespan for which data are available), NUPD officers have never fired their guns, discharged pepper spray once (in 2018), and used their batons twice (once each year in 2018 and 2019).
The data are accompanied by relevant sections of NUPD policies.
“It was important to us not just to post a bunch of numbers, but to contextualize the data with information about our policies, training, and procedure,” Davis says.
Ruben Galindo, director of public safety and deputy chief of police, adds, “The value of sharing information with others is that it continually guides us in our performance and our ability to provide better service. It’s so important to hear feedback from our community and to hear other people’s perspectives.”
This is particularly true for the NUPD, whose jurisdiction is defined far differently from the traditional geographical bounds of a municipal police department, Davis says.
“Our scope of responsibility includes international safety and security and emergency management, as well as police operations on and beyond the borders of our campuses,” he says.
Members of the advisory board say that while frustrations and disagreements among board members have certainly arisen from time to time, their meetings have been overwhelmingly collaborative and fruitful.
“I’ve been on similar boards in other police departments that are often more confrontational than anything else,” McDevitt says. “Police have a whole set of rules that govern how they act and react to situations, and what we see time and again is a steep learning curve for members of these types of boards to understand how officers are supposed to act in any given situation.”
McDevitt and Moriah Wilkins, a law student who sits on the NUPD Advisory Board, say they have been approached by other police departments that want to implement a similar community advisory body.
Wilkins, Miller-Smith, and other students on the advisory board say the meetings have been a learning experience. As the NUPD Advisory Board closes in on a full year together, they’re hopeful that the second year will bring even greater change.
“Things started off slowly, as we all got to know each other and figure out what we needed,” Miller-Smith says. “Once we formed subcommittees, though, it felt like things really started rolling. There’s a lot we want to do, so I hope we can keep the momentum going.”
Broovelt Lacet, a resident of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, and co-owner of Thom S. Carlson Corp., shares a similar view as a community member on the board.
“This was just year one and I think everyone is really optimistic about year two, especially when we get past COVID and we can actually meet with people in the community, sit down and have people talking together,” he says. “Now that we have a blueprint and a plan for where we’re going, let’s see where we go in year two.”