Moving beyond the Attic

Results and recommendations are in from two month-long reviews of the Sept. 8 Attic incident involving the Pullman City Police Department’s handling of a fight among a small group of WSU students at the Top of China restaurant/Attic nightclub. And this week, leaders from WSU and the City of Pullman have committed to work with one another and university students to improve community relations, trust, understanding, communications and law enforcement to ensure that future incidents like this do not occur.

On Oct. 29, city and university leaders culminated the review process, agreeing to a proposal from the Department of Justice to support and participate in the formation of a WSU Student Public Safety Board.

“Really, we started this process immediately after the Attic incident, and have been in steady contact with students and city leaders,” said Sally Savage, vice president of university relations. “Overall, what we’re talking about is a building of community. When you step back and think about it, we all share the same goals, desires and incentives to make this a great community in which to work and live.”

Law enforcement specialist Robert Keppel, Ph.D., who was contracted one month earlier by the Pullman City Council to conduct an independent investigation of the Attic incident, presented his report on Oct. 22. Keppel, who has more than 30 years experience in law enforcement, told the council and WSU students that he “did not sense or hear racial bias” regarding the police department’s handling of the incident and its use of pepper spray. He also pointed to the fact that there are “many” documented incidents in which the city police have responded to “fight calls where the officers have used pepper spray on white males as well.”

But the city did not escape unscathed. Keppel went on to tell the city and university that they needed to work together to develop better communications and relationships with each other and multicultural students.

On Oct. 29, Rosa Melendez, Region 10 director of the U.S. Department of Justice/Community Relations Service, repeated and endorsed many of Keppel’s recommendations and went on to outline the need to form a WSU Student Public Safety Board to “foster communications.”

“I have discussed this case with some of my colleagues who have worked on similar issues with universities throughout the nation, and we all agree communication is needed,” Melendez noted in a letter to President V. Lane Rawlins.

The student board should be a reflection of the WSU student population, she said, made up equally of freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors, with different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It would also include representatives from WSU’s administration and faculty, officers from the Pullman and WSU Police Departments, and city administration and staff. The board shouldn’t consist of over 25 people and should be governed by students.

Keppel targets failures
Keppel’s report noted that the Pullman City Police failed to “assess” the situation, failed to communicate and prepare a plan of action, and failed to “utilize proper procedures in using pepper spray and treat-ing those who were exposed.” He also noted that university faculty and staff failed to in-form the police about the planned gathering and did not adequately supervise it.

Keppel’s report was broken into two sections, the first focused on the role of the police, the second on the university’s planning and handling of the “off-campus event.” His report did not address the students’ role in the event. However, the report noted that many of the students interviewed “complained openly about the conduct of fellow students at other gatherings. They related that alcohol consumption and fights were a common occurrence every weekend.”

In his conclusion, Keppel wrote that relations and communications between the city, university and students must improve to avoid similar future problems. He also advised that all parties focus on recommended actions, rather than the past event.

“The citizens of Pullman were fortunate that more serious emotional and physical injuries did not occur,” Keppel stated. “It is a concern to me that if immediate action is not taken as a result of this assessment, and the City of Pullman and university officials do not work together to deal with this situation, it is probable that similar incidents with even more serious consequences will occur in the future.”

Keppel’s report offered numerous recommendations to the city, police and university. A few include:

City of Pullman
• establish a better process for handling large gatherings
• discipline police officers for failing to communicate, assess and plan, and provide additional training regarding the appropriate use of pepper spray, scene assessment, communication, medical assistance, leadership, establishing a command post and debriefing procedures
• issue police whistles and bullhorns to better alert people in a crowd or fight

Washington State University
• establish better guidelines for advising students regarding social events
• hire off-duty officers to police large social events
• hold advisers accountable for their actions and discipline those who are abusive to police officers
• continue to provide programs regarding alcohol abuse and underage drinking, and enforce existing related policies
• work with Pullman Police, WSU Police and the Washington State Liquor Control Board to curb underage drinking

“The president (Rawlins) and the university strongly support these recommendations and will work closely with the city and students to cooperatively take steps to address these issues,” Savage said.

Rawlins, in his President’s Address on Oct. 23, noted that the university is already making plans to expand its community relations efforts and possibly staff.

“We don’t have a specific plan in place (to expand community relations), but we are in the process of discussing and formulating it,” Savage said. “Initially, it will probably require some reorganizing and reallocation of resources. Over time, given a more favorable economy, we may look at adding a position or two.”

That effort will address the need to better coordinate communications now coming from several WSU offices, including community and university relations, the foundation, business affair, student affairs and others, she said.

“The Attic incident was an unfortunate event and we’re dreadfully sorry that it happened to our students. But I do see a silver lining, so to speak, in that this event has served as a catalyst bringing the university, city and students together to facilitate better communications, relations, understanding and a better community,” said Savage.

“This was a big wake-up call letting us know that we need to work hard with all law enforcement to ensure student safety.”

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