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Updates on Community Safety External Review and Action Steps

Dear Northwestern students, faculty and staff,

Over the past many months, Northwestern has asked you for input as we work toward one of our highest priorities — ensuring that we are all safe and feel welcome on our campus, especially members of our BIPOC community. An important part of that process is a reexamination of our campus safety services and the ways by which we support and protect you.

We all have chosen to be part of a university that seeks to answer tough questions with thorough analysis, idea exchange and open dialogue. Our community, through innovation and iteration, translates vision into reality. This also will be our approach to rethinking Northwestern’s public safety practices.

Our leadership team has listened to and engaged with many voices across campus, and reflected deeply about what we do and how it impacts the community. We also sought expert advice from an external review of the Department of Safety & Security (DSS). What we have heard is that we must change to serve our community better. We agree and commit to doing so.

Today we share with you the following:

  1. The results of the DSS external review on community engagement and security operations, a study we committed to do as part of our social justice initiatives.
  2. The initial counsel and proposals of the Community Safety Advisory Board (CSAB), a group formed last winter and charged with seeking ideas and providing direction on the future of community safety at Northwestern. CSAB’s work is not done. In future discussions, it will have much more input on more fundamental changes to campus safety.
  3. Our specific commitments to action, based on the advisory board’s proposals, with milestones by the end of June. 

Today is not the beginning of our task nor is it the end. Meaningful, systemic change means we all must have sustained urgency to tackle issues, discuss and debate solutions, and keep moving toward a better university. We commit to intentional action and to making decisions grounded in analysis and ongoing dialogue with our community.

Safety & Security External Review

Last summer we committed to completing and publicly sharing an independent review of DSS operations and its community engagement. We retained two experts in the fall to help us better understand how to improve campus safety. This independent review will be foundational to building a roadmap toward a more inclusive and just vision of community safety.

One external reviewer, Patricia Holmes of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, is a former judge and Assistant U.S. Attorney with extensive experience investigating police misconduct. She and her team sought to understand community perspectives about DSS, particularly those of Black students. The second, Security Management Risk Consultants, specializes in evaluating the policies and activities of safety operations. The two consultants collectively held more than 80 interviews across our community and beyond. Both also had full access to internal data and our full support.

This report is now publicly available. The findings focus on three main themes among more than two dozen recommendations:

  • Rebuild trust in a new version of campus safety through an emphasis on positive engagement instead of law enforcement, achieved through activities such as educational programs, clear and consistent communication and proactive outreach to stakeholders.
  • Redirect resources toward more appropriate responses, especially regarding mental health.
  • Increase accountability and transparency of campus safety practices.

Community Safety Advisory Board (CSAB)

As we previously shared, the cross-university CSAB is charged with representing the community, evaluating options and priorities and advising University leadership on our path forward, both in implementing recommendations from the external review and other dialogues and in providing innovative new ideas for meaningful change.

We are excited to share that our new vice president and chief diversity officer, Robin Means Coleman, has agreed to co-chair the advisory board with Dr. Clyde Yancy. Her expertise and perspective will be invaluable.

The group is now fully formed with members nominated and invited from across the University. Including the group’s leadership, there are four undergraduate students, three graduate students, one postdoctoral scholar, five faculty members, three staff and one alumna. They all bring compelling personal experiences and voices to the table, and we thank all of them for their dedication to a safer campus environment.

The advisory board has met several times already to hear directly from the external reviewers and to discuss the report’s recommendations. In the interest of transparency, meeting agendas are posted on the advisory board’s webpage.

The board members have developed an initial set of proposals that emphasizes what they have identified as the highest priority and most actionable items from the external review.

The CSAB will continue to evaluate recommendations from the external review, make additional proposals and continue to develop a broader vision of what campus safety could and should look like.

Our Commitments and Next Steps

We, along with Provost Kathleen Hagerty, have reviewed the CSAB’s initial proposals and have made plans to act upon all four ideas. We recognize the need to act both thoughtfully and swiftly. We will complete the following actions by the end of June:  

  • Reexamination of student mental health response: We will examine and then determine the role that DSS should have, if any, in student mental health responses. We anticipate implementing any resulting changes to DSS’s role over the summer. This timing allows us to ensure that we will have the right resources in place for a safe and smooth transition to new practices. By the end of June, we also will identify and implement alternative transport options to the hospital for students experiencing distress instead of a marked safety vehicle. (Note that rides back from the hospital, with presumably a low risk of harm to the student and driver, are covered with ride-share vouchers.) This work will center the safety and humanity of all those involved, especially for our BIPOC students. 
  • Safety & Security work analysis: We will complete a strategic work analysis of DSS activities to determine which services should be performed by alternative methods or cease altogether. As the external reviewers and advisory board noted, this analysis is necessary to understand both the need for campus safety services and how it could look different. Potential changes identified through this analysis would be implemented beyond the first three months. We will seek the counsel of the CSAB in the analysis and implementation of actions. As with student mental health, it is imperative that any changes be handled smoothly with a clear alternative identified in order to ensure continuous campus safety. 
  • Revision of complaint reporting process: We will reroute complaints about campus safety services outside of DSS. To meet the desire for additional transparency, we also will publicly share the revised process. 
  • Revision of racial identifiers practices in campus notices: We will review and revise our practices on when racial identifiers are used in incident alerts (“Crime Notices”). We also will implement standard language for these notices to reduce the level of discretion exercised in each instance.

Updates on our progress will be shared regularly with the advisory board, and we will seek its counsel throughout this process. The campus community also will receive updates, which will be posted to the CSAB’s webpage.

The changes we have pledged to undertake over the next three months, as well as those we will make in the future, will help us better reflect our University values in all we do. As noted earlier, these action steps are only one part of a longer journey toward a safer environment for everyone.

We are grateful to all those who have shared their thoughts, experiences and ideas thus far.