Within the next few months, the Howard University Department of Public Safety (DPS) will facilitate new campus safety initiatives. In a school-wide email sent on July 19, Chief of Police Marcus Lyles announced an upcoming “safety fair” to educate Howard community members on best safety practices. He also communicated a plan to distribute handheld safety devices to community members in the fall.
The fair will be held on the Yard on August 18 from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., and it will give students, faculty and staff the opportunity to learn from “self-defense demonstrations and tips” and learn about campus safety guidelines, according to the email.
Some initial safety tips listed in the email included: “Avoid isolated and dark areas,” “Carry your cell phone and keep it accessible” and to “report any suspicious activity or suspicious individuals to the HU Police Department at 202-806-1100.”
Jarrett Carter, Director of Operations, Strategy and Communications, works closely with DPS. The fair, he explained to The Hilltop, will be mutually beneficial for the students and The Department as it will serve two purposes: to educate students about safety, and to make DPS more transparent and approachable.
“In light of police relations nationwide,” Carter stated, “we also want to ensure we have a positive relationship with our students, so they recognize they do not have to fear the presence of DPS. We are here to protect them…”
To this end, he added that the fair will allow The Department “to hold many of these conversations in person with students… so that they feel comfortable with getting to know the officers and learning more about how the community works together to promote safety and well-being.”
In the spirit of promoting safety and well-being, DPS also plans to distribute over 2,000 POM Safe devices in the fall to students, faculty, staff and anyone affiliated with the university, according to Carter. The small, circular devices are 1.7 inches in diameter and weigh four ounces, according to the product’s information on Amazon. Although DPS did not specify how much they paid for the devices, they will be paid for by the university and given out to Howard community members for free.
Some of the devices’ abilities include calling local police with a triple tap, speed dialing a friend with press and hold of a button, sending your location to contacts and triggering a fake phone call to your cell phone, among other abilities.
“The POM can be used as a two-way communication with a dispatcher, or be used in silent mode to alert help discreetly,” the POM Safe website says in an instructional video. The device links to your phone on the POM Safe app.
Given that there are over 13,000 university affiliates and just over 2,000 devices currently, the devices will be given out “on a first come, first serve registration basis,” Carter said in an interview.
He added, “The only reason why we’re not at a bigger number now is because the manufacturer – like most businesses – they’re having supply chain issues. So we want to be bigger and badder right now, but for this particular manufacturer, that’s what they are able to give us now. So we’re at the mercy of the supply chain…”
Carter emphasizes, though, that “this is an expansion of what already every student and employee should have, which is the BisonSafe app. So this is not new technology, it’s kind of an additional technology that you already have.”
The BisonSafe App has an “Emergency Contacts” button on the homepage that allows users to contact 911, DPS or Howard University Hospital Security. BisonSafe has approximately 24,000 users which include faculty, staff, students and “external stakeholders,” according to Carter. He also stated that there were less than 10 emergency calls on the app over the last six months as of July 29.
Beyond providing Howard community members with protection and safety measures, a major focus for DPS over the past several years has been to foster meaningful connections and positive interactions between the department and students. DPS leadership wants their officers to be emotionally invested in students, and not just as protectors, but as friends, mentors and conversationalists.
“I need officers who can come speak with you, who have an education where you can have an intelligent conversation with, you feel comfortable with, you know they care about you, and they can talk to you if you allow them…” a representative from the DPS leadership team said. “What I tell my officers is that, ‘you’re not Officer Friendly. They don’t see you as that until you show your humanity and you show them that you care.’”
Talon Francis, 19, is a sophomore marketing major from Prince George’s County, Maryland. He’s had personal experiences with DPS officers that, for him, have indicated officers’ willingness to connect and show their humanity.
“They really are nice people…,” Francis said. “I can’t say how many times I’ve walked into a Subway late at night and I’ve seen one of them ordering a sandwich and I say ‘how’s your night going?’ and they say it’s going well and it starts a conversation.”
Though he added, “I feel like they could improve on being more outgoing to students, making sure that students are OK instead of just sitting there, or just a friendly ‘Y’all have a safe flight,’ or something like that.”
“Other than that,” he said, “I feel like they’re really doing their job, and they really are nice people.”
In some students’ opinions, showing the community that they care, or that they are nice people, is an area that DPS needs to work on. Jahazz Roberts, 19, is a sophomore film and media major from Chicago, Illinois.
Roberts spoke with The Hilltop about a situation where, in October 2021 on the weekend of Howard’s homecoming, he and a few friends were sitting on the rooftop of Cook Hall watching the Howard football game and were subsequently confronted by four campus officers when they went back inside the residence.
“One of them was pulling people out of rooms by their arms. The thing that they were saying when they first caught us was, they kept asking us ‘was it worth your housing…’ All we were trying to do was support our football team by watching the game, and they were asking us ‘was it worth your housing.’”
The reason for the confrontation was because he and his friends were not supposed to be sitting on the roof, according to Roberts. He said that the campus police “lined us up in the hallway.”
“The male officers were all very aggressive. There was a female officer who was just there doing her job… but the male officers that I confronted were very aggressive, very accusatory, very chastising,” he said. “I thought there would be a lot more grace than I received, but it wasn’t that far off from dealing with regular metropolitan police officers.”
After the confrontation, the friends were scheduled to have a meeting with Lyles a few days later, and Roberts said, “He was very gracious… I do have a lot of respect for him based on the fact that when we came in, I presented him with issues of how aggressive they were with him and he was like ‘Imma get on that.’”
Of the over 4,000 college and university-based public safety departments in the country, HUDPS recognizes itself as one of the largest. The department actively hires throughout the year and maintains an attrition rate of, in Carter’s words, “well below” the national average of 10 to 11 percent per year.
Carter said that DPS is comparatively larger than other institutions’ because it wants to be capable enough to serve the 13,000 Howard University community members and needs to be nimble enough to serve its Ward 1 jurisdiction in tandem with the Metropolitan Police Department. As of 2020, Washington, D.C.’s Ward 1 has a population of over 85,000 people and covers two-and-a-half square miles.
Some of the people HUDPS hires include compliance and crisis experts as well as attorneys. “Prospective officers can be found at local gyms and public areas,” a DPS representative said. The department did not provide The Hilltop with information on its number of employed officers or the number of operating vehicles upon requests.
Copy edited by Jadyn Barnett