TU officials answer community questions at safety forum following shooting

Compiled by Anna Hovet, Staff Writer and
Meghan Hudson, Editor-in-Chief

The following questions were presented by the Student Government Association (SGA) at their campus safety forum. Questions were pulled directly from an online form which allowed attendees to submit their questions in live time.

The following individuals provided responses at the forum:

  • Dr. Vernon Hurte, Vice President of Student Affairs
  • Anthony Skevakis, Dean of Students
  • Patricia Bradley, Interim Vice President of Inclusion and Equity
  • Joe Herring, Towson University Police Department Chief
  • Jordan DeVeaux, Student Government Association President

1. Can we have a summary of the events that took place from the TUPD side this past weekend?

Herring: This past weekend, we had a unsanctioned event that occurred up in Freedom Square. We had individuals gathered there starting around 11:15pm or so, and the event was peaceful at first. The crowd quickly grew to a larger size and then other activities began to occur at the event. We were in touch with Baltimore County Police Department earlier as the crowd was growing and then the incident involving the shooting occurred which prompted the response from Baltimore County, TUPD and the medics. The incident is still an active, ongoing investigation. Baltimore County is the lead investigative agency in that. We are cooperating with them and working with them in concert, but I really can’t talk more about the event and the investigation.

2. Why isn’t President Schatzel here?

Hurte: Because this is an information session is really important for the key campus leaders who have oversight and responsibility for various aspects about the campus community. So, these are the representatives that have responsibility when it comes to student life, when it comes to safety, to be able to respond to questions.

3. How are we addressing safety and harm reduction without the implementation of more TU police officers?

Hurte: I mean when we think about the safety of campus you really want to have a multi-pronged approach. I mean the reality is, public safety is an important element of that. we want to ensure when we think about the impact, harm reduction, we want to make sure that we’re continuing to invest in appropriate support services. So, for example, in the midst of this incident that took place, wanting to make sure that we’re investing in mental health resources for students that were investing in additional education around information sharing. Around, in this case, unsanctioned events – making sure that University leadership is aware of things as they’re being planned or they’re floating within the community, and so that’s apparent. We need to continue to have a multi-pronged approach that includes continuing to have our partners who are providing safety to campus – the TUPD on public safety, and also making sure that you’re bringing up supports support services of that help when it comes to harm reduction and the impact of significant incidences like we saw this past weekend.

4. WJZ reports that a “stand down” order was given by University leadership to TUPD, is that true?

Herring: That’s absolutely not true. The article recorded that the order was given by the president and myself, and I can absolutely categorically assure you that neither of us gave that order nor will we ever give that order as we address unlawful activity on the campus.

5. You [Herring] mentioned being aware as the group was growing this past weekend, so a lot of students and families want to know how a group of that size grow to that level without prior intervention?

Herring: So, as many of you are aware, there was a similar event that occurred a couple of days prior. It was much smaller crowd, earlier period of time, different types of activities, but it was similar. We monitored that, it was peaceful, a crowd assembled and enjoyed some music and they disassembled. We interacted with Dr Hurte’s team and some outreach to students and student groups to provide guidance on how to request to hold an event and how to become a sanctioned event. And then on Friday into Saturday morning, this event again started to assemble, so my officers were monitoring the event. It quickly grew to a size that we needed to address or start to address and before that could happen it deteriorated into the criminal act that we all had to respond to. So again, I can’t talk a lot about what we’re doing and how we’re doing that because it’s an open criminal investigation with the county and administrative investigation and public safety, and we will be sharing information as it becomes available and if appropriate to share.

6. What new actions are being taken in order to ensure that this was just an isolated event.

Herring: So, the Police Department has worked with senior leadership to develop a different reaction plan if students and outside members and the community start to assemble and in an unsanctioned manner. And that would involve interaction with Dr. Hurte’s team, involvement with Baltimore County and earlier intervention to disperse the event to make sure that we don’t wind up back in a similar situation in the future.

7. Why was the suspended officer put on paid leave rather than unpaid leave?

Herring: So, under the current Maryland Law, police officers under administrative investigations into their actions need to be performed with a law that’s commonly ­­– a public safety article – is commonly referred to as a law enforcement officers bill of rights, and the only way that I am able to lawfully suspend an officer without pay is if they are charged with a felony. Now, that law is changing later, next year, but it hasn’t changed yet. So, the only option to me at this time, if I chose to suspend the officer, it would be to suspend their police powers with pay and then move forward with the administrative investigation and that is in fact what we chose to do.

8. Why was the police officer suspended?

Herring: Suspension of police officers’ powers is – sometimes departments choose to allow a cooling down period when there’s an event that occurred and there’s serious questions about ongoing operational issues involving that officer. So, in this case I consulted with the office of human resources and after discussion we decided it was the best option for the campus to suspend the officer’s police powers, which means I had to remove them from any functions out on the street as a uniformed police officer.

9. Will upcoming campus sanctioned events have different and/or higher safety standards?

Hurte: So, I’ll say with outdoor event procedures, so we have new outdoor event procedure that actually went into effect this summer. We actually had a great event this weekend that was in compliance with the event procedures. It’s really important to me and it’s really important to the leadership that we know the types of events, the unsanctioned event that took place Saturday night. With sanctioned events that are hosted by student organizations, they are within policies and procedures and took the appropriate steps. So, we’ll continue to follow those procedures and will continue to support the organizations and hosting sanctioned events. We’ll continue to take a look at the procedures and policies and make those enhancements as we continue to move forward and assess how those events take place.

10. Do you think the increase of officers on campus has impacted the culture of the growing diverse Towson population?

Bradley: I think that for the most part all of us have checked out social media and seen all the comments on social media and the trolls… And I know that there is a narrative that’s out there that because of the initiatives around diversity, that violence has come to campus, and we reject that. And so, I don’t think any of our students of color, I don’t think they have to validate their presence here, you belong here. And so, what I would challenge is for our allies now is to stand up and take the anti-racist position and say no, not at TU, you belong here. This was isolated incident, don’t attach it to race.

The SGA opened the floor to questions. The following questions were presented by members of the audience.

11. How do you plan to address the people who would feel more unsafe with the increase of officers on campus?

Herring: So, we have come up, we obviously put in a temporary plan to increase our physical presence with visible officers for the days immediately following the event. It was not sustainable. We are currently working, actively working, to hire additional officers for our vacancies, and we will continue our practice of high visibility, uniformed patrols on campus especially during hours that students arrive on campus and the routes that they take both on foot and vehicular traffic when they’re coming in.

Thank you, I say this with all due respect, but how does this address the people who feel more unsafe with more officers?

Herring: So, I would encourage those folks that do feel unsafe with police officers around to reach out to me so we can have a frank conversation. I’m always open to new ideas. I’m always open to different concepts that make people feel comfortable. Dr. Hurte alluded to the revised outdoor event policy and the idea of pulling back the police presence and role in those events. Our goal is to make the campus safe and keep people safe, and a big part of that is that people feel safe.

Hurte: To add to that question, when we think about the safety of campus, I think it’s important that we recognize that TUPD is one element. And so, we don’t want to communicate that the answer to improving safety on campus is just an increase of campus police. That’s one aspect of it. It’s conversations like these, it’s really important to hear from community, to hear from students and confront their needs. But as we think about the next steps forward, it’s not just about the police, but it’s really thinking about what are the other needs.

12. Tell me if I’m not communicating your concern properly, but we’re all aware of the complex relationship between people of color and police on a national level, so how is TUPD different in that discussion?

Herring: Well, I would point to our record what we do and how we police here at campus. I think we have a far different policing model that we follow here than even our close allies the Baltimore County Police or the Maryland State Police. We are very community oriented in what we do. Our focus on events, on safety, is to provide information to the group, to the community, to be visible to deter those who would come onto campus for the purpose of committing crimes and to be responsive at a surface level. Not necessarily typical policing type services, but a service level to help our community reach resources that will support them. Whether it be the Counseling Center, Student Services, there are certain things that make it a different approach to how we resolve issues when they’re presented to us – crimes or follow up.

13. SGA proposed bills to defund TUPD, and that’s been happening at colleges around the country recently. And then on top of that, a WJZ article said the [Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)] #82 has reportedly been pressuring the administration to give more resources and fill vacancies in TUPD for months now. In your opinion, is TUPD properly resourced and staffed to keep our campus safe?

Note: FOP #82 is a police lodge/union comprised of current and former Towson University Police Department members.

Herring: So, my answer to that question is a resounding yes. I’ve had nothing but support from the senior administration here since I began leading the department as the chief. I was here prior as deputy chief, which is a more operational type position. I believe our funding is adequate. In this period of fiscal concern with regards to the impact of COVID[-19], we continue to have our vacancies approved to be filled and we’re working to fill. We get the resources that we need ­– so the answer to your question is yes, and I don’t agree with that statement by FOP #82. I meet regularly with the FOP and we do discuss those type of things with the fop leadership, and we work very well together – collaboratively to solve problems, but my answer is yes.

DeVeaux: I do want to speak a little bit to the defunding of TUPD that was brought up earlier, just so there’s no confusion about that whatsoever. The Student Government Association here at Towson is constitutionally obligated as a branch of shared governance here to raise concerns on behalf of students, that’s students individually as well as student organizations. So, this past year, under the 100th administration of the SGA, there was a bill that came forward on behalf of Freedom School which is a student organization here, to defund the police here at Towson. That is not the stance of the SGA because the Student Senate failed that bill in the Senate. So, I just want to clarify that for anyone who’s unclear on that.

I would actually like to know why that bill failed?

DeVeaux: You all, every spring, elect your student senators, as well as you have opportunities throughout the year to apply to be a senator. We would love for any of you to apply to be senators as well as your friends. So, your elected representatives, the Senate, votes on your behalf. So this is a great opportunity to plug that to each of you if you would like to voice your concerns in the Student Senate. Applications are open right now.

14. Does the Towson University student, family and staff response to TUPD and admin make you guys feel like the actions you have taken are satisfactory to the community or that the actions you have taken are enough?

Herring: I can tell you that the Office of Public Safety does a loopback back on every event that we have on campus and we take a critical look at what we’ve done how we’ve done it. What did we do well? What did we do not so well? Part of the process involves feedback from the community. I read through every one of those comments that come in and those questions that come in and we have a frank discussion and we change the things that we need to change. You know our goal is to put quality public safety services out in the community and to keep them safe and the way to do that is by constantly reevaluating what we’ve done.

Hurte: We’ve heard from community members, parents, and current students, and all their feedback is critical. The reality is, we had a tragic incident on campus this past weekend and to move forward as business as usual is not the appropriate response. And so, we want to learn from this incident, we want to improve our campus, we want to improve the sense of safety of the community members. And so, we want to utilize that feedback and utilize information that comes from the various investigations that are happening in order to improve.

15. Will there be any future events to improve any relations between TUPD officers and students such as meet and greets, speaking to student organizations and/or education campaigns?

Herring: We typically do one or two events a year. I want to take a second to introduce some people that are in the audience. We have Major Larry Bell who is the commander responsible for Patrol Bureau and Captain Woodrow Myers who is the commander responsible for the outreach team. Captain Myers interacts frequently with Student Government, administration and other student organizations to develop programming where we can invite students to events and we can have officers there to interact, talk, share ideas, that type of thing. So the answer your question, yes. I can’t give any details since we’re just starting this semester but they will occur throughout the year.

DeVeaux: I will add that the SGA is really excited to have another community dialogue about some new technology TUPD is instituting here at the university, including body cameras and things of that nature, so look out for information about that.

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