We Are.. Reclaiming the City: A Q&A with President Jerome Gilbert

The Marshall University Police Department (MUPD) is anticipating 10 new officers by Fall 2019, building the force up to 32 officers. Marshall University President Jerome A. Gilbert collaborated with a committee established by Executive Affairs SVP Layton Cottrill to settle on a hiring model for the 10 officers and three dispatchers, along with a $2.50 per semester parking fee increase and a small part of the overall 4.25 percent tuition increase for students next year. During the following question and answer session, President Gilbert said the additional officers and dispatchers will emphasize the safety of Marshall University’s campus, in light of criminal activity increases in Huntington last year and Marshall’s future campus expansions into the city.

How was the decision to hire 10 new MUPD officers initiated?

A committee was formed by Layton Cottrill, SVP for executive affairs. The police (MUPD) report to him, so he charged them with forming a committee to look at what would be needed to increase the campus police force and to enhance the security of the campus. So they came up with a set of proposals at three different resource levels. We chose the middle one.

Where does the slight tuition increase factor in to that hiring plan?

We did implement a tuition increase this time, which is going to fund a good bit of it. I wanted to make sure that we had enough support in the budget to support that middle option, which is about $630,000 on an annual basis that will go to those 10 new officers, three dispatchers and new equipment for the force.

What would you say to students who might oppose the tuition increase that comes with hiring 10 new officers?

Well, there’s increasing costs at a university. There’s a small inflationary component, and there’s also expanded services that we want to add. This is an example of one of those expanded services that we see that we need to add to ensure the safety of the campus. So it’s being done out of concern for the students. We still have a relatively low tuition compared to our peers. I think it’s important we try to keep it that way, but financial pressures and decreases in state funding are always going to probably be there, so we’re always going to have to have an eye on balancing the budget and making sure that we can provide proper resources for the students here. It’s a necessary step that we have to take.

What, do you feel, made that step necessary?

The crime situation in Huntington had ticked up, particularly in the latter part of December last year. We saw three homicides in a row. None of those were close to Marshall’s campus, but we were worried about any possible spillover in the future. We’ve not had any real violent crimes—or much crime at all—on the campus, so we wanted to ensure that we are safe and will continue to be safe by having a stronger force. We’re also expanding the reach of the campus onto Hal Greer Boulevard by building a new pharmacy school and some residential housing adjacent to the Erma Byrd Center. We wanted to reach out along Hal Greer Boulevard with our force, so that would require additional officers, as well as beefing up the patrol on the campus. Those were the two goals.

So would you say the hiring of 10 new officers is more of a proactive measure than a reactive one?

It’s definitely a preventative or proactive nature. I think it sends a signal that we take safety very seriously on this campus. I want our students to feel safe here, and I think the vast majority feel safe on the campus. I certainly feel safe when I’m here on the campus, day or night. I also feel safe in Huntington. Our crime issue in Huntington has been overblown and has been exaggerated, as if any common citizen could be involved in those crimes or be a victim of those crimes. I think it’s highly unlikely that you would be impacted if you weren’t purchasing drugs or interfacing with people that were in the drug trade. The crime that we’ve seen in Huntington is almost exclusively involved in that and in domestic disputes.

How much of a reduction in crime have we seen so far in Huntington?

We have seen the concerted effort of federal, state and local officers this year. There’s a 24 percent decrease in violent crime in the first three months of this year. A 36 percent decrease in overdoses, and that was before the big round-up that occurred two weeks ago, where almost 100 drug dealers were indicted. Now that that’s occurred, we’re going to see an even more marked decrease in crime and related activity to drugs.

Now that the safety of the city and campus are being re-established, what’s the next step?

People have to believe in Huntington again. We’ve started a campaign called #MyHuntington, where people can talk about the positive things about Huntington, because there are so many more positive aspects about Huntington than there are negative, even when you consider the crime and all of those issues. Things are improving. And I think it’s important that we start sending a message that we see the improvement. We are reclaiming the city as a safe city, and a city where people can enjoy life without having to worry about their safety. We are working with the mayor’s office to rebrand Huntington and Marshall, so that people will understand all of the positive things about Huntington and understand that there’s a safe community here and not a community that’s riddled with crime or violence.

Rebecca Turnbull can be contacted at [email protected].