After a months-long national search, Western Washington University has selected Katy Potts as the new chief of the University Police. The announcement was made on Oct. 31, and Potts will begin her new position in the new year.
The search for a new police chief began after former WWUPD Director and Chief Darin Rasmussen was hired into the new position of assistant vice president for Risk, Ethics, Safety and Resilience in February. Rasmussen was chief of police at Western for eight years.
Potts will be moving to Bellingham from South Carolina, where she lived for three years. She worked in Georgia at Augusta University’s Police Department for three years as a captain. Potts said that working at Western’s police department will be different from Augusta University because Western is larger and has more of an on-campus residential community.
The Front asked our readers over Instagram what they wanted us to ask Potts about during our interview with her. One question that a follower and Western student requested that we ask was, “Is there anything about WWU’s police force that you plan on changing or improving?”
Potts said that before she makes any firm plans to make changes or improvements to WWUPD, she wants to get to know more of the employees and see where there are needs within the department. She said she plans to utilize community engagement and connect the police department with campus organizations like the Multicultural Center, LGBTQ+ Western and Western’s athletics department.
“One of the big things that I did hear from the police department is that they want to be engaged with the students and they're just looking for ways and a plan to have [engagement], and I am definitely somebody who is a planner,” Potts said.
When asked another question about how she would foster anti-racism on Western’s campus, Potts referenced the concepts of accountability and outreach.
“Just on a day-to-day basis, it's to be out and listening, and this actually came up in my interview; it's really to just listen. It's not there to make excuses. It's not there to explain ourselves away,” Potts said.
The committee to hire Potts began work in May and was comprised of 11 members of Western’s campus community including students, staff and faculty.
Joyce Lopes, Western’s vice president for business, finance and administration, said that because the vacancy for the chief of police position was created in the spring, the university waited until the fall quarter began to interview applicants to ensure that there was enough time while class was in session to select from a pool of candidates.
“We did a national search and had five really well-qualified candidates in the final round of interviews in October, which aligned with the beginning of the quarter and ensured that faculty and students could participate in the process,” Lopes said.
The committee included students from two elected positions — the AS president and the AS vice president for diversity. Glory Busic, last year’s AS president, and Naira Gonzales, last year’s VP for Diversity, both said they had little involvement in the decision process because their positions transferred to newly elected students this fall. Sargun Handa, this year’s AS president, did not respond to requests from The Front to comment on their involvement in Potts’ hire.
Lopes said one of the main requirements for the new police chief was that it be someone who understands “community-based policing.” Lopes said Potts fit that description.
“We're really excited about her bringing her style of supervision to the department and working with the officers as we continue to engage in community-based policing for Western Washington University,” Lopes said.
Community-oriented policing, also known as “COP,” is defined by criminology scholar Charlotte Gill as “an approach to policing that emphasizes the development of partnerships between the police and the community to address a multitude of outcomes including crime, fear of crime, police legitimacy and citizen perceptions of disorder.”
Community-oriented policing has been criticized as “rhetoric without reality,” and one 2021 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that COP does not appear to decrease instances where police use fatal force.
Potts said her approach utilizes something different from community service or COP — “community engagement” — which she said she participated in while she worked at Augusta University by holding ‘breakfast for dinner’ events with students, meeting students at orientation events and attending intramural sporting events with AU’s police department.
“It's like the buzzword to say, ‘Oh, community policing! Get out there and show 'em we're doing this.’ I don't look at it that way,” Potts said. “I do like, though, the term ‘community engagement’… community engagement is working together to address the issues or to address the things that the community needs that we need as the police department to be reminded about.”
Potts will begin as police chief of WWUPD on Jan. 1 under the condition that she passes the required formal background check process.