Inside NYU’s Troubled Campus Safety Department

NYU Campus Safety officers speak out about their frustrations toward their leadership, and how an accreditation system and the university’s COVID-19 protocols have impacted their work.

An illustration of the silhouettes of three NYU Campus Safety officers, standing with the hands clasped in front of their bodies. None of their faces have been drawn.

(Staff Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

NYU’s Department of Campus Safety has faced a number of challenges during the past year. It was criticized for the intermittent closures of several campus buildings due to security staffing issues and for failing to adequately respond to a string of highly publicized attacks outside of campus buildings.

Fountain Walker, the NYU vice president who heads the department, also had to apologize to residents of Rubin Hall last month, saying he was “chagrined” by the department’s response to an intruder at the residence hall. Following the incident, the department opened an investigation into its response and one officer resigned.

On April 25, WSN published an unsigned opinion essay by a Campus Safety officer who described the department as “a ship without a captain.” The officer wrote that “morale has never been lower within the ranks” and “leadership has no answers and operates like they answer to no one.”

WSN spoke with the Campus Safety officer who wrote the essay and two other officers to compile this account of the department’s leadership, morale and the handling of security incidents on campus. The three officers requested to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation from the department and the university.

“Everyone doubts the competence of this administration,” the guest essayist and first officer said in a later interview. “You won’t find too many people that think that these guys have any idea what they’re doing.”

Walker prepared a statement in response to questions posed by WSN for this story, parts of which have been quoted from. It is also published in full at the end of this article.

I

High stress, low morale

The sense of community within the Campus Safety department has been on the decline, according to all three officers. The second officer has worked with the department for over 20 years, including during the Sept. 11 attacks and several New York City blackouts. They said they have never faced as much work-related stress as they have over the past several years. 

The second officer said the department used to feel like a family, but has now turned into a “toxic work environment,” noting how leadership treats students as clients rather than people. The officer said that although they used to be happy to go above and beyond at work, they are not as motivated because of the administration’s focus on maintaining a low budget and enforcing disciplinary measures against officers.

“We would go that extra mile with a smile on our face and goodness in our hearts,” the second officer said. “Now we’re just biding our time — and so many officers have left. They can’t take it anymore.”

The first officer added that leadership does not seem to care about the safety of students and staff. They said many of their colleagues also question budgetary and planning decisions made by the department’s administration.

“The boots on the ground don’t have a very good or good opinion of this administration,” they said. “They’re far from impressed. The morale is super low.”

We would go that extra mile with a smile on our face and goodness in our hearts. Now we’re just biding our time — and so many officers have left. They can’t take it anymore.

— NYU Campus Safety officer

II

Lack of communication from leadership

All three Campus Safety officers who were interviewed said that communication between the department’s administration and staff is inadequate and that they rarely interact with leadership. 

“There’s a bit of an arrogant nature at the top,” the third officer said. “It can be very ‘my way or the highway’ — but that’s if you can find them. Largely, they’re absentee at a certain level. You don’t see them.”

The first officer said that there is a running joke within the department that if Walker says he will follow up with an officer about a complaint, they probably will not hear from him.

“He’s out of his depth at this job,” they said. “I don’t believe he’s the right guy to be running public safety. He doesn’t seem to have a good grasp of what it takes to run a university like ours.”

Before joining NYU, Walker worked at the University of Chicago between 2010 and 2017, holding several jobs within its university police department. In 2015, he was named chief of the department. He joined the University of Chicago after serving as the police chief and director of public safety at Davidson College. Prior to that, he was a sergeant in the police department of Cornelius, North Carolina, between 1995 and 2003, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1986 to 1994. 

Walker, who has been head of Campus Safety at NYU since 2020, told WSN that there are many ways for officers to communicate with him and other members of leadership. He said there is an online comment form for officers who either do not want to speak with him directly or who prefer to raise concerns anonymously, which he reviews with his staff.

“For those who desire more communication with leadership, I invite them to come see me,” Walker wrote to WSN. “I have scheduled office hours where uniformed personnel can share ideas and concerns one on one.”

Fountain Walker at a podium on a stage in Tandon’s Dibner Library. On the podium, there is a sign with the NYU logo and “Tandon School of Engineering.”
Fountain Walker speaks at a town hall at the Tandon School of Engineering on Sept. 23, 2021. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

Students have also expressed frustration with the way Campus Safety shares information with the broader NYU community. WSN previously reported that students were concerned by Campus Safety’s delayed communication following a shooting in a Brooklyn subway station in April. The attack, which affected many students’ commutes to and from campus and called into question the safety of the public transportation system, was not addressed by Campus Safety until nearly five hours later.

The first officer said that this instance of a delayed response did not surprise them based on their personal experience with leadership’s communication to the department and university as a whole. However, they said the response time to the shooting was an improvement compared to the department’s communication at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It’s either incompetence or arrogance, because they think they don’t have to communicate,” the first officer said.

Walker said that the department created a committee in 2018 to provide a forum for Campus Safety employees to build a sense of community. Although it was put on pause due to the pandemic, Walker said that Patricia McSteen, the senior associate vice president and deputy of Campus Safety who joined the department in February, is working to relaunch the committee in the near future.

“I hope [the committee] will serve as a fruitful forum for discourse in the Department,” Walker wrote.

A purple uniform patch with the logo of the NYU Department of Public Safety on the shoulder of a Public Safety Officer.

(Photo by Manaal Shareh)

III

Budget prioritized over safety, officer says

The priorities of the Campus Safety department have also come under criticism by officers, with several saying that the department has prioritized budgetary concerns over their wellbeing. The first officer said they began to notice this trend when Walker and his administration started to lead the department.

“They’ve been doing things for the budget, first and foremost, safety second,” the first officer said. “And anybody that’s been around for a while will tell you that was never done before.”

Campus Safety sent a memo to the security supervisors of eight on-campus buildings in February, informing them that the department would be cutting down on overtime hours for officers. The decision, attributed to the department’s budgetary constraints, left some posts unstaffed on nights and weekends, while others were staffed by non-Campus Safety employees.

A camera is not going to stop a vagrant coming into the building. I’m going to stop them.

— NYU Campus Safety officer

Students reported that their access to facilities and academic resources has been limited. Building administrators and Campus Safety officers also expressed their concerns that the reduction of overtime hours would leave university buildings more susceptible to trespassing. One officer previously told WSN that many Campus Safety officers rely on overtime pay to make enough money to live in New York City.

The second officer said that Palladium Hall — a building which they said is meant to have four officers on duty — now only has two. (WSN could not independently verify this claim.) They said the low staffing makes it nearly impossible for officers to check people entering the building for COVID-19 compliance — this includes the Daily Screener questionnaire everyone entering university buildings must fill out.

“That post is too busy, especially with what’s going on now,” they said. “It can’t be done.”

University spokesperson John Beckman previously told WSN that budgetary decisions are made to support other university priorities, such as providing financial aid to students, preventing increases in the cost of attendance and investing in academic programming. 

Walker said to lessen overtime hours, the department has hired 87 officers since September 2020. He said Campus Safety has made these hirings a priority both because of the budgetary strains overtime has caused to the department and to allow officers more time to rest.

“It is not fair to say we have underinvested in safety or put dollars ahead of safety,” Walker wrote. “Bringing the right people on board and training them up in such a short timeframe has been no small task.”

Following several attacks outside of university buildings — many of which occurred by the Stern School of Business — Campus Safety installed lights on scaffolding and nine security cameras east of Washington Square Park. Despite these measures, many students reported that they still felt unsafe in the area. The second officer said that cameras and lighting are not enough to protect student safety — more personnel are needed as well.

“The students and staff feel more comfortable seeing a familiar face that they know will keep them safe,” the second officer said. “A camera is not going to stop a vagrant coming into the building. I’m going to stop them.”

Walker said the department has implemented Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a public safety approach which uses cameras, turnstiles, panic buttons, emergency call boxes, lighting, personnel and other measures to address security concerns. He said this approach gives Campus Safety officers more protection while they are working.

“In terms of technological upgrades, we see these as a valuable support — and by no means a replacement — for our Campus Safety officers,” Walker wrote. “No officers have been substituted for cameras — in fact, a security officer was added in addition to the technology that was recently placed near Stern.”

IV

‘Everyone seems to know it’s a scam’: Campus Safety’s CALEA accreditation

Two of the Campus Safety officers who spoke to WSN attributed many of their concerns about the department’s budget to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, an independent corporation which law enforcement organizations pay to be evaluated as an accredited agency. Campus Safety has been fully accredited by CALEA since March 2020.

The accreditation system was first introduced to NYU by former vice president for campus safety and CALEA commissioner Marlon Lynch, who left the university to become the chief safety officer at the University of Utah in 2020. Lynch previously worked as the associate vice president for safety, security and civic affairs at the University of Chicago, alongside Walker.

The third Campus Safety officer said that many of the budgetary problems they and their colleagues have been facing can be traced back to CALEA and the money and resources it detracts from the department’s other needs.

“It emphasizes administration over uniformed personnel,” the third officer said. “It’s not made the department any smoother running. It’s probably more dysfunctional than it’s been … Everyone seems to know it’s a scam and I think they seem to be riding it out as long as they can.”

After receiving CALEA accreditation, Campus Safety introduced PowerDMS, an electronic system that distributes Campus Safety memos and information to staff. The third officer said that officers are expected to read the memos that come through the system while they are at their posts, which are often busy as students and other employees enter and exit buildings.

“You’re supposed to read it while, let’s say, working at the Kimmel Center at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, retain it and then sign off to say you read it and you have no chance to ask questions,” the third officer said. “It’s impossible to really retain something in a lot of cases and you’re expected to. This way, if you wind up doing something that’s against the protocol, you are now the responsible party — not them.”

The first officer also said that the CALEA accreditation is a waste of the department’s money and said that it does not improve the safety of Campus Safety staff or the NYU community. They said many officers believe the system allows them to place blame on individual officers for being in breach of one or several of nearly 300 CALEA standards, allowing the department to avoid taking responsibility for organizational or communication errors.

V

At the onset of the pandemic, officers’ health overlooked

Multiple officers reported that, in the early months of COVID-19, they did not feel as though their health and wellbeing were valued by Campus Safety leadership.

The second officer said that Walker told officers not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic, and that he would direct them to take their masks off. The officer said that officers were not provided masks or other personal protective equipment until students began to speak up about the situation, and that Walker’s disregard for the safety of officers made them lose trust in him and his administration.

“He said it in roll call — ‘If I catch you wearing a mask, you’re going home,’” the officer said. “He needs to apologize to us for threatening us and saying that we could not protect ourselves during COVID. That’s why I have no respect for him. I have no respect for that man.”

The third officer also said the department’s leadership instructed officers not to wear masks because it “made them look sick.” They noted that supplies like masks and protective gear were unavailable for the first two months of the pandemic, and that they had heard of officers having to visit one of NYU’s dental facilities for surgical masks.

In response, Walker said that COVID-19 guidance has evolved over time, and at the beginning of the pandemic, public health authorities did not urge those who were healthy to wear masks. He said that around March 2020, when masks began to be recommended for essential workers, NYU provided masks and protective gear to all Campus Safety officers.

Walker denied that there was a directive that officers who wore masks would be sent home at the beginning of the pandemic, but said there was one instance in which an officer was asked to remove their mask while on duty.

“There was one instance early on, before the guidance changed, of an officer who was wearing a mask and who was asked to take it off,” Walker wrote to WSN. “That officer later went home sick, but that was at the officer’s own instigation, not because the officer was sent home at the direction of the Department of Campus Safety.”

VI

Reactions to the Broome Street incident

The officers also pointed to a July 2021 incident at the Broome Street residence hall — during which a Campus Safety officer stabbed his supervisor multiple times — as an example of the department’s lack of effective risk mitigation. The perpetrator was immediately suspended and charged with attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon after turning himself in later the same evening.

The third officer said they knew the assailant was involved with other incidents of misconduct concerning COVID-19 protocol before the stabbing. They alleged that these incidents were documented, but went ignored by leadership.

“That was completely mishandled,” the third officer said. “There were a lot of ways that could have been avoided and the warnings fell on deaf ears.”

The second officer said that disciplinary protocol was not followed in the lead up to the Broome Street incident. They said that the residence hall’s Campus Safety director superseded the chain of command that officers are typically instructed to follow.

“Leadership is directly responsible for what happened at Broome Street — directly responsible,” the second officer said. “It could have been handled any different way … It shocked everybody.”

All three officers who spoke with WSN said they were upset with Campus Safety and its current administration. The first officer said they want to see leadership take responsibility for its past and present shortcomings.

“How many times does something bad have to happen and have them either fail to act or act slowly before there’s some sort of consequence?” the first officer said.

The second officer said that going forward, the administration needs to adapt and listen to its officers’ complaints. They noted how the problems they see in the department do not stem from the resources that are available to them — but rather its leadership.

“The components are there,” the second officer said. “Everything is in place for a smooth, stressful coexistence. It’s just that the people that are in those places don’t allow that. And that’s unfortunate.”

Read Walker's full statement to WSN (click to expand)

The last two years have been challenging for all of us, but perhaps particularly so for those of us at Campus Safety. From enforcing evolving COVID-19 protocols to being on the front lines as people’s perception of crime and personal safety have changed, the pressure has been great.

Moreover, this has been a difficult period for those who wear uniforms. Campus Safety is not a law enforcement organization in a conventional sense — our officers do not have powers of arrest — but the concerns and skepticism about police and policing have an impact even on organizations such as ours, which is meant to serve as a safety resource rather than a law enforcement agency.

So, I sympathize with many of our officers who may feel worn out, and I am very grateful for their service. 

But it is not fair to say we have underinvested in safety or put dollars ahead of safety. For example, we have hired 87 officers since September 2020 — a considerable investment of time and resources. Bringing the right people on board and training them up in such a short timeframe has been no small task. We made it a priority because overtime is not only a budgetary issue; we also want to make sure our officers have adequate downtime and are not overworked.

In terms of technological upgrades, we see these as a valuable support — and by no means a replacement — for our Campus Safety officers. By employing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a process by which cameras, turnstiles, panic buttons, emergency call boxes, lighting, personnel, and other methods are placed into an area, we believe we’re giving our Campus Safety officers more protection and control over their work environment. No officers have been substituted for cameras – in fact, a security officer was added in addition to the technology that was recently placed near Stern. 

 I’ve also encouraged our uniformed staff to avail themselves of the dedicated mental health resources that have been specially developed with their needs in mind. We’ve done our best to promote these services during roll call meetings, at our annual service trainings, and in all our internal communications such as our monthly newsletters and our internal website.

As for those who desire more communication with leadership, I invite them to come see me. I have scheduled office hours where uniformed personnel can share ideas and concerns one on one. If an officer doesn’t want to talk to me directly, they can also raise concerns anonymously and suggest ways we can improve via our online comment form; I review all submissions personally with my staff.

The understanding of COVID-19 has grown over the course of the pandemic, and it’s important to remember that at the beginning of it, the guidance was different than later. Initially, public health authorities were not urging general use of masks, partly because of concerns about availability and shortages, but also because health authorities reckoned that the best use of masks was for them to be worn by the sick to prevent spread, rather than by the well to avoid contracting COVID-19. The guidance changed over time, and when the recommendations evolved to furnishing masks for essential workers — around March of 2020 — NYU did so, too, providing masks and other personal protective equipment for all Campus Safety officers reporting for duty.

And no, there was no practice or directive that Campus Safety officers wearing masks would be sent home. There was one instance early on, before the guidance changed, of an officer who was wearing a mask and who was asked to take it off; that officer later went home sick, but that was at the officer’s own instigation, not because the officer was sent home at the direction of the Department of Campus Safety.

One last thing I’d like to add: In 2018, we established a new committee — AVPAC — that was designed to serve as a forum for all members of the department to feel heard and to help us create the Campus Safety department that we can all be proud of. This committee met several times and discussed a great range of issues—from roll call protocols to departmental barbecues. The challenges of pandemic operations put AVPAC on hiatus but Patti McSteen, our new senior associate vice president and deputy of Global Campus Safety, is currently working towards relaunching this committee, which I hope will serve as a fruitful forum for discourse in the department.

—Fountain Walker, NYU Vice President, Global Campus Safety

Contact Abby Wilson and Maria Freyre at [email protected]

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