Gunman scare puts campus police to the test

Photo by Alex Perry, ‘11. Campus police handle local crime and the occasional emergency.UPDATE: This article covers the Sep. 1, 2010 “Gewirz Gunner” campus security incident. To read about the more recent report of a campus gunman, which occurred on Sep. 30, 2011, click here.

Law Center security has been put to the test in recent months, dealing with everything from petty theft to drug activity on 2nd Street to a false report of a campus gunman.

In an interview with the Law Weekly, Director of Public Safety Edward Piper reviewed his major methods for keeping the Georgetown community safe. He also shed some light on a recent flurry of security incidents, including the campus gunman scare, which ended with D.C. police holding a 1L resident of Gewirz Hall at gunpoint.

Piper, a longtime security expert who joined Georgetown in 2007, said that campus safety “starts with the officers themselves,” referring to the Law Center’s twenty-three patrol officers, two library security officers, five sergeants, and five communications officers.

Piper noted that although members of the Georgetown community sometimes mistake the uniformed officers for security guards, the men and women are actually commissioned special police officers who undergo hundreds of hours of training.

The Public Safety Department regularly communicates and works with surrounding law enforcement agencies, including the Metropolitan Police Department, Supreme Court Police and U.S. Secret Service. Georgetown Law Public Safety has also worked to protect important campus visitors, including Supreme Court justices, Vice President Biden, General David Petraeus, and various foreign dignitaries.

Leading such campus security efforts is “anything but boring,” Piper said.

And indeed, boring is probably the last word anyone would use to describe September 1st. That day, an unidentified individual contacted the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department to report that someone was on the 7th floor of a building on Georgetown Law’s campus with a firearm.

Piper said that, contrary to expected procedure, DC police did not inform Georgetown Law Public Safety of the report. “A call went into the MPD about an armed man on the 7th floor,” Piper said. “That [information] did not go to campus security.”

Instead, Georgetown security only learned of the report when multiple D.C. police squad cars arrived on campus a little after 6 pm.

As those events unfolded, 1L John Wood, who lives on the eleventh floor of Gewirz Hall, was about to find himself in the wrong place at the very wrong time.

“When I make phone calls,” Wood explained to the Law Weekly, “sometimes I walk outside. I was on the phone with my grandfather for three or four minutes [when] I hear a lot of police sirens. I look over the edge of the roof, and I see that four or five squad cars have pulled up outside Gewriz.”

Wood recalled that he wasn’t sure what was happening, but thought to himself, “Good thing I’m safe up here, away from the bad guys.”

Little did Wood know that to the D.C. police officers eleven floors below, he and the black object in his hand appeared anything but safe.

Director Piper explained, “The [MPD officers] saw someone on eleventh floor looking down with something in his hand. Looking up many floors [after the] call [of a campus gunman] comes in, you have to assume the worst.”

And so, within seconds, Wood found himself on the wrong end of a D.C. police assault rifle.

“The police officer looked up and saw me, and ordered me to put my hands above head.”

Wood obeyed, holding his hands and the cell phone high. Wood says that while one officer kept a weapon trained on him, five or six other policeman ran into Gewirz.

According to Wood and Director Piper, those officers then ran up eleven flights of stairs.

“You would take the stairs, not elevator” as a standard tactical decision, Piper explained. Taking an elevator could leave officers subject to greater danger because they would have no idea what awaited them on the other side of two automatically opening doors.

While a campus sergeant led the MPD officers upstairs, students in surrounding buildings were told to stay inside. Those students, viewing the situation from afar, drew their own conclusions and rumors began spreading, potentially including another false report about a student suicide.

Within approximately five minutes, the MPD officers reached the eleventh floor. According to Wood, the officers told him about the gunman report and the need to take it seriously, placed him in handcuffs, and spent fifteen minutes confirming his identity and checking the surrounding area for danger.

At one point, Wood recalled with amusement, he told an officer that he was a first-year student, and the officer deadpanned, “Welcome to D.C.”

Looking back on the incident, Wood—who laughs at the nickname assigned by his classmates, the “Gewirz Gunner”—mostly expresses understanding. “The event is understandable. What I’m not happy about is that no one has come to me and said, sorry man.”

(UPDATE: Wood later told the Law Weekly that after the publication of this article, he received an official apology from the Law Center).

Since the incident, Director Piper said, he has contacted the MPD District Commander to ensure that Georgetown security immediately learns about reports of danger. To this day, the police have not reported identifying the person who initially reported a campus gunman.

Whatever its origin, the call and the subsequent events gave Georgetown Law’s Department of Public Safety a unique chance to put their training into action.

Piper said that his campus police officers would soon engage in training exercises designed to prepare participants for how to deal with a campus shooter. Additionally, Piper hopes to obtain 800 megahertz radios, which would allow the Georgetown officers to stay connected with local police frequencies.

Of course, campus police usually focus on other, more common security efforts: warding off theft, maintaining control of who enters buildings, and alerting students to potential dangers.

“Bicycle thefts have been a problem,” Piper said, because a thief can easily resell the property. Last weekend, his officers actually caught a “young juvenile” in the act of stealing an on-campus bike.

Another recent issue was an “open drug market” across from the playground on 2nd Street. Piper said that drug users and sellers were assembling close to a playground where small children from the Early Learning Center gather for outside recreation.

Concerned, the Public Safety Department met with the Metropolitan Police Department, D.C Protective Services and the Capitol Police Department and explained the situation. The four agencies then worked together to address the situation.

According to Piper, the number of arrests in that area has risen, much of the trash has been cleared away, and ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Drug Free Zone’ signs have been placed in the area adjacent to the playground.

“I’ve definitely seen an improvement in that area and I hope students see it as well,” Piper observed, promising continued “strict enforcement.”

In short, with the semester now well underway, the Department of Public Safety is continuing business as usual, handling everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.

“[Georgetown Law] is in our nation’s capitol,” Piper said, “so even if things aren’t happening on campus, they’re happening around us.”

Edward Mitchell

News Editor, Law Weekly