His Chief Concern: Campus Safety

by Terri McCLain

Don Strom, Director of Campus Police

Don Strom frequently describes the campus community as a "family." Perhaps that's because, as the father of four, including a recent Washington University graduate, Strom feels a personal connection to the students and their parents.

As chief of the Washington University Police Department (WUPD), the idea of building community partnerships is central to his professional philosophy. He believes that when people think their police officers share a sense of ownership in the community, citizens and police cooperate more fully.

"People have to see that we're not apart from but a part of the community," Strom says. "My role is to build upon the strengths and professionalism of the people in the department, while at the same time ensuring that we are engaged in interacting with our campus partners as much as we possibly can. We've enhanced our communication with core groups like Residential Life and others, meeting with them on a regular basis, responding to events immediately when they occur, and also identifying and proactively dealing with some potential bumps in the road ahead."

Strom came to Washington University in February 2000 with 20 years of law enforcement experience, having worked his way up from patrolman to detective to chief of the Carbondale (Illinois) Police Department, a position he held for nearly eight years. He also served as the inspector general for the Illinois Secretary of State's Office, working with federal investigators to root out corruption and investigate charges of obstruction of justice.

In Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University, Strom gained valuable experience serving the needs of students and schools. He also helped establish several community partnerships, including a police chaplain program.

A graduate of both the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville, Strom has been active in numerous law enforcement organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Although university police departments are not uncommon, Strom must frequently confront misconceptions about the role of the WUPD, whose officers possess the same authority as municipal police officers.

"People don't always understand that this is a police department as opposed to a security staff," he says. "Our officers are highly trained professionals who are certified in the State of Missouri. The University has made an important commitment to employ people with a high level of training and expertise. It's just another in the fantastic array of services Washington University offers in support of its community."

Because the University's Hilltop Campus is geographically located within four different police venues (St. Louis County and City, University City, and the City of Clayton), WUPD must maintain close ties with neighboring departments. Even so, many in area law enforcement had never worked with WUPD prior to the October 2004 presidential debate, which had even tighter security than the two previous debates hosted by Washington University.

"Certainly the presidential debate was a challenge," Strom says. "It was also an opportunity for us as an organization to grow. I think one of the nicest outcomes is a new level of respect for our agency from every law enforcement agency in the region."

One of Strom's goals for the department is to provide advanced professional training and to encourage officers to take advantage of the University's educational opportunities.

"It's a challenge sometimes. We've tried to align our shift rotation with the semesters to make it easier for officers to take classes," he says. "We're also working on building a crisis intervention team and providing enhanced training for our officers regarding mental-health issues. I think it's an area in which officers have been highly under-trained, yet they deal with these issues almost daily in one capacity or another.

"Another big challenge is continuing to attract highly skilled people who are caring, compassionate, and sensitive, and who are interested in working in this environment, because not every police officer is," he continues. "I'm always excited when officers come to us who are already parents because I think they have an appreciation for some of the issues that young people and families confront here. For many families this is the first parent-child break, and parents are looking for us to watch over their children. That's quite different from what people expect from their local law enforcement."

Serving a population that changes yearly and overturns roughly every four years brings the constant challenge of having to re-educate a relatively naive community about safety and security issues. Teaching students how to prevent crimes of opportunity is a primary objective. Strom also works to improve campus security by implementing new philosophies and programs such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which focuses on building and landscaping to provide better light and visibility around entrances and walkways and reducing shadows where someone might hide.

"Mom and dad may be thousands of miles from here, so what occurs on our campus needs to be this large extension of family," Strom says. "Quite frankly, I think families sense that when they come here, and I like being a part of that."

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.


Peer Review

"I've worked with Don quite closely. His values show through in his work—serving others, being proactive, doing what is best for students, and providing a safe and secure environment. He's incredibly collaborative, and he's also innovative—his department has implemented a number of programs that benefit students. And I think his attitudes rub off on his officers, because they have built great rapport with the students."
—Jill Carnaghi, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Students/Director of Campus Life

"Don Strom is a trusted and admired colleague. The professionalism and dedication he has brought to campus have without a doubt made Washington University a safer and better place. He understands well the crucial role campus police play in the lives of our students, and in that regard he is an educator. And as I learned working closely with him on the planning of two presidential debates, he is a chief who has earned the respect of security professionals from around the country. We couldn't be in better hands."
—Steve Givens, Assistant to the Chancellor

"Don is a consummate professional who has significantly improved the safety and security programs both on the Hilltop Campus and in neighborhoods where a number of our students reside. He cares deeply about the University community, and he is one of the most dedicated employees I have ever had the opportunity to work with."
—Steve Hoffner, Executive Vice President, Quadrangle Housing Company

"An excellent contributor to the safety and security of our community, Don Strom and the team he leads are disciplined and helpful in all ways imaginable. His special leadership and dedication during the time of the presidential debate were extraordinary. During most times things are just 'routine,' but we can depend on Don to keep things going well and responding promptly and effectively when emergencies arise. I am grateful to him for his exceptional commitment to the University and preserving its sense of community."
—Mark Wrighton, Chancellor