Community input helps shape advisory board recommendations to enhance public safety at USC

The report from the Department of Public Safety Community Advisory Board recommends steps aimed at strengthening trust between the university, DPS and the broader community and making security more equitable.

July 28, 2021 Gustavo Solis

The committee tasked with reevaluating the Department of Public Safety’s role at USC published a report Wednesday that recommends changes to make safety more equitable for all Trojans and the community.

This report, published by the Department of Public Safety Community Advisory Board (CAB), makes recommendations that range from changing the response to nonviolent incidents to setting up an independent review board for DPS. The 103-page document represents 10 months of research and analysis, coupled with the findings of a “co-design” process that engaged more than 700 students, faculty and staff members, neighbors and current and former law enforcement officers in a series of town halls, workshops and meetings.

The co-design process was specifically designed to give multiple opportunities for stakeholders to engage by participating in person. Additional sources of input were received via feedback submitted electronically through the CAB website and opportunities to join monthly meetings as part of the CAB’s Kitchen Cabinet sessions.

The CAB’s co-chairs are Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations and Dean’s Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science, and Erroll Southers, director of the Safe Communities Institute and a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Extensive outreach efforts to community stakeholders for input were a critical component of this report, Hancock Alfaro said: “The legitimacy of an initiative like this is predicated on engaging with as large a cross-section of opinions and ideas as possible. We created our co-design process accordingly, with three of the four process phases involving public and confidential opportunities for all participants to give voice to their stories, ideas and concerns.”

USC President Carol L. Folt created the CAB last summer after George Floyd’s murder sparked a national conversation about police and community relations.

The group’s mandate was to:

  • Help ensure an environment where everyone feels safe and respected.
  • Conduct a thorough examination of USC’s public safety practices, including hiring, finances, accountability and bias training.
  • Play a crucial role in USC’s renewed efforts to remedy broader social inequalities in our community.
  • Strengthen the trust between the university, DPS and the broader community.

Southers said the fact the advisory board reports directly to Folt’s office shows how serious the administration is about these issues.

“This is a direct report to the president of the university — that’s huge,” said Southers, a professor of the practice in national and homeland security. “Dr. Folt advised in my initial meeting with her that nothing is off the table.”

USC leadership, DPS chief support mission of the advisory board

The 19 members of the board include faculty representatives, students, staff members and neighborhood residents. They include Jody Armour, the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law; Erika Chesley, then-president of the USC Staff Assembly; student representatives from undergraduate and graduate student government organizations; and community leaders such as Skipp Townsend, executive director of the violence reduction organization 2nd Call.

“Over the last year, Professors Hancock Alfaro and Southers, along with the entire CAB, have dedicated themselves to this important effort, putting countless hours towards listening to and engaging with hundreds from our extended Trojan community, analyzing data and reviewing best practices,” Folt said. “They covered truly remarkable ground, especially during a year where we were challenged in so many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m grateful to the nearly 700 members of the community who participated. The report is comprehensive and forward-looking. The university is already working to begin implementing some of the CAB’s recommendations, and I look forward to sharing much more on these efforts in the coming weeks and months.”

According to the report, the board was created “to become a crucial factor in ensuring an environment where everyone feels safe and respected. We set out in an effort to strengthen the trust between the university, DPS and the broader community, particularly in light of recent and ongoing events across the country that have underscored the need for transforming the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

John Thomas, executive director and chief of DPS, said he supported the creation of the CAB, actively participated in its meetings and embraces the recommendations in the report.

“I was encouraged to see so many different groups and individuals providing input and participating in the process because it is important to me that we serve our entire community,” he added. “I regularly assess our department based on evolving best practices for campus public safety departments and community input; continuous improvement is part of our culture. We are reviewing all of the recommendations in detail and have already begun working on an implementation process. I look forward to working with the CAB co-chairs, students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community to continue to enhance the service DPS provides.”

Advisory board envisions the future of public safety at USC

The CAB began its report by establishing a shared vision of what public safety should look like at USC:

  • A safe life that is free from experiencing crime.
  • A safe experience navigating the campus and its surrounding locations, free of being falsely targeted as suspicious, threatening or not belonging to our community.

The report recommends a “top-to-bottom re-envisioning of safety” that considers alternative responses to nonviolent 911 calls besides sending an armed DPS officer. These calls include interactions with people struggling with mental health problems or people experiencing homelessness. The CAB also proposes a permanent and independent oversight body that reports to the USC president and USC Board of Trustees.

Apart from those two recommendations, the report makes 46 actionable recommendations divided into four areas: accountability, transparency, community care and alternatives to armed responses. Among the recommendations:

  • Create a public policy statement about the seriousness of racial profiling by DPS, as well as any student, faculty, staff, community member and visitor. The statement should underscore that racial profiling will not be tolerated.
  • Adopt a community-based violence intervention program. This program would partner with community intervention workers whose life experiences enable them to be credible messengers, allowing them to promote peace in the community.
  • Commit to creating student and neighbor engagement activities that would enable each group to learn from one another and build relationships of trust and care.

One of the main takeaways from the CAB’s months of community engagement was the concept of “One USC,” in which every member of the USC community experiences safety equitably. The community includes students, staff and faculty members and the people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding USC.

The board recommended this unifying vision because members of the public told the board they feel DPS doesn’t treat every member of the community the same way. Specifically, the report notes: “Neighbors and residents near both campuses shared stories of an ‘us versus them’ feeling when it came to how USC priorities its engagements, development and public safety practices.”

“It’s the same kind of information from conversations that we’ve had with faculty, students, staff and neighbors frequently and consistently — that there are two different worlds with it comes to public safety at USC,” Southers said. “What’s interesting about this is that it didn’t come from just one group of people. We didn’t hear the neighbors and students say different things. They were all saying the same thing.”

The report defines One USC as a safety vision with the goal of ensuring an environment where everyone feels safe, respected and protected while also recognizing that USC can only achieve this goal by addressing the diverse experiences and needs of all USC stakeholders.

Exploring public safety responses and possible alternatives at USC

Another important aspect of the report was a recommendation to evaluate the calls DPS responds to and question whether DPS is the appropriate agency to be responding.

Fewer than 10% of all calls to DPS require a law enforcement presence, the report notes. Because DPS is the only agency at USC that operates on a 24-hour basis, a lot of responsibilities have fallen on it over the years.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are the victim of a crime or if you are locked out of your room,” Southers said. “Because they are the only 24-hour campus response agency, DPS becomes the default response for everything.”

As an alternative to law enforcement, response teams without armed officers could include health care professionals who respond to nonviolent mental health calls or social workers who respond to calls involving homeless people. These would not only provide a better service to the community but also leave DPS officers available to respond to more emergencies, the report suggests.

We don’t want people to say this is just another working group, another committee, another board, another report and nothing happens.

Erroll Southers

This could also give USC the ability to tap into its existing resources, like faculty members and students from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work or the USC Rossier School of Education, Southers said.

“We already train the professionals who respond to these types of calls in communities across the country,” he said. “We should tap into our own talent.”

Thomas said he agrees with the recommendation of having trained professionals handle requests for assistance that aren’t part of the traditional public safety role. That includes having trained mental health professionals and social service experts respond to nonviolent mental health calls or calls involving homeless people.

“I was happy to see some of the recommendations in the report were about collaborating with the community because they are similar to ideas we have had at DPS about how to enhance those relationships,” Thomas said. “I hope getting this validation will help increase interest from students in partnering with us on community programs.”

The CAB stressed that this report is only the beginning of its work.

“We don’t want people to say this is just another working group, another committee, another board, another report and nothing happens,” Southers said. “I’ve seen too many instances of similar efforts across the country that were very well-meaning, but no one follows up.”

The CAB co-chairs have already been meeting with university leaders and stakeholders to discuss how to implement the report’s recommendations, and meetings will continue all summer.