University police chief combats sexual assaults with apps, relationships

Southern University Police Chief Joycelyn Johnson has been combating sexual assault since long before it became a hot-button issue

By George Morris
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE, La. — You can't open the newspaper or flip on the TV without hearing about another A-lister brought down by charges of sexual assault or harassment.

But Joycelyn Johnson has been combating sexual assault since long before it became a hot-button issue.

It started when she was on foot patrol in the Southern University Police Department, and continues now that she's chief.

Her work has been noticed, and not just on campus.

Johnson was honored last year regionally by HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators and locally by the Baton Rouge Chapter of The Links for innovations she has brought to Southern police, particularly those combating sexual assault on campus.

When Johnson, 49, joined the force in 1999, she walked the night shift, keeping an eye on several dormitories.

“Walking around meeting students, talking to them, just getting to know them is when I started learning about these types of crimes going on, and they just don’t report,” Johnson said. “So, after getting to know students and listening to some of the things that were going on, that had happened to them or friends, I had decided to do something.”

In 2002, she received approval from then-Chief Dale Flowers to contact other police departments and implement a domestic violence awareness and prevention program at Southern. She began by creating self-defense classes, safety awareness efforts and letting students know about health and counseling services. Later, Flowers approved her request to offer a rape and sexual abuse awareness and prevention program and to provide a private office where victims could feel more comfortable.

Since the campus population constantly changes, the need to get the word out is constant. In the early going, that included a pamphlet Johnson created titled “Keeping Jags Safe.” As time passed, smartphones have become nearly universal.

“One morning I was riding around campus, and from the Mini-Dome to inside the campus, the kids walked to go to class, and everybody pretty much had a phone in their hand either looking down or not paying attention,” Johnson said. “I said I need to do something to get their attention while they’re on the phone.”

That inspired her to pursue development of the Jags Safe app, which was introduced in 2015 while Johnson was Southern’s interim police chief. Developed by 911 Cellular, the app enables Southern students and faculty to contact the campus police department, request an escort to their vehicle, track the location of the campus shuttle and anonymously report crimes or other problems on campus, including photos or videos. It also has emergency information, a campus map and other safety features.

About 2,900 Southern students and faculty members have downloaded the app, Johnson said, and they’re not afraid to use it to alert Southern police. Not all of those contacts are emergencies, but she views anything that connects students to the campus police as a positive.

“They tell us all kinds of things,” Johnson said. “The funniest one: ‘Can you please tell the kids upstairs to stop stomping? I’m trying to sleep.’”

This is not to say there aren’t more serious issues, including the ones that caught Johnson’s attention as a patrol officer. Sexual assault remains a subject that victims are reluctant to speak about to authorities, the chief said. Rape accusations are rare. When they have occurred, Johnson said she has done whatever is necessary, including providing rides to the District Attorney’s Office for accusers who needed transportation.

A Baton Rouge native and 1986 Capitol High School graduate, Johnson is the first woman to be Southern’s permanent police chief. Capt. Sandra Knighten, one of her mentors, was the first female interim chief.

Since becoming chief, Johnson said she has encouraged officers to “adopt” dorms so the students will get to know them.

“It’s very important,” she said. “As a student, it was important for me to have relationships within the campus community because I needed help. When I was a student, I didn’t know one campus police officer. I would see them, but I didn’t know their name.”

©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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