UTSA Chief of Police: A Big Heart with a Big Vision for Campus Safety
This year’s Higher Education Campus Safety Director of the Year winner is known and respected for his approachability and dedication.
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As the 6’4″ former chief of police at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), a person of Gerald Lewis’ stature may be a bit intimidating to some — both physically and professionally.
However, Lewis is far from intimidating to those who know him, including students who often recognized him and exchanged friendly greetings when he did his daily walks around campus. His amiability paired with his dedication to campus safety and security is why he has been selected as the 2021 Campus Safety Higher Education Director of the Year winner.
“Chief Lewis is a big man with a big heart who easily stands out in a crowd, but he is also very approachable,” said Daniel Kiley, assistant chief of police. “He loves being around students and one of his favorite daily activities is to walk the campus common areas and interact with the students.”
Kiley recalled times when Lewis reached into his own pockets to help students with basic needs such as food, gas and medications. He also recalled a time when Lewis replaced a student’s earbuds after she lost them. While these may be considered small acts of kindness to some, those types of gestures certainly add up and are reflected in how he is approached when patrolling the 600-acre campus.
“While walking around the campus with Chief Lewis, we are frequently greeted by students who recognize him and just want to exchange friendly greetings. Having this direct link with our student population has been extremely beneficial to our department,” Kiley continued. “This is something I have never witnessed previously with the five former UTSA Chiefs of Police.”
UTSA Students Motivated to Partake in Own Safety
Although face-to-face social interaction with the student population is essential to forming meaningful relationships and gaining trust with campus police, Lewis also believes in the importance of including students in their own safety. One way he accomplished this is through the establishment of the Rowdy Watch Program, which recruits students to patrol the campus, conduct function checks of emergency phones, respond to door access requests, and provide escorts for other students.
“The program allows uniformed officers to concentrate on their patrol activities and it promotes interest in police officer positions after the students graduate,” said Kiley.
Chief Lewis also championed the production of UTSA police’s own Avoid, Deny, Defend active shooter video. It was filmed on campus using campus police officers and students as actors. The video is now shown at all new student and employee orientation as a training tool.
Other programs such as “See Something Say Something” were strongly promoted by Lewis to get the community engaged in reporting suspicious behavior or activity. He also met with representatives from various companies that offer cell phone security apps. After several meetings, he chose LiveSafe, which allows users to send audio, pictures and live video recordings directly to the police Communications Center. Additionally, Lewis created a Public Safety Community Support Center centrally located in the student union to increase accessibility for students.
Because of his influence within the student community, at the start of each season, Lewis is invited by the UTSA football coach to speak with players at the initial team meeting. Lewis’ close relationship with the athletic department also made way for social change following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests against police brutality. After watching the horrifying video and noticing other officers did not step in, Lewis asked his own officers, “Would you be brave enough to stop it?”
Lewis later met with the football team to discuss issues within policing and the George Floyd case. He told the football team about the conversation he had with his officers, and his words inspired the team to create t-shirts that read, “Would you be brave enough to stop it?” The team wore them before every game that season.
“It was probably the proudest moment I’ve ever had as a law enforcement officer,” Lewis told The Paisano.
Involving Non-Security Leaders in Campus Safety
In addition to students, Lewis strongly believes in the need to involve non-security department representatives in keeping UTSA safe. Based on this belief, in 2018, Lewis initiated the annual Safety Walk, designed to identify and mitigate potential hazards faced by members of the campus community. Partnering with various members of the university community, including the individuals from the Student Government Association, Facilities, Office of Sustainability, Housing and Student Affairs, the group sets out on a pre-planned walking route to help campus leaders assess whether key elements of the current safety and health initiatives are effective and efficient.
The Safety Walk team looks at lighting in high traffic areas and popular short-cuts used by students, faculty and staff, particularly during evening hours, to determine if current lighting is sufficient. The group also looks for physical hazards, such as cracked sidewalks that pose tripping hazards, broken handrails, or landscaping that blocks light fixtures or provides concealment near residential windows.
The group takes photos of their findings and creates a detailed abatement plan containing a list of hazards found, corrective actions needed, and a reasonable timeline for implementation.
“New LED lighting in the previous dimly lit parking lots have turned the night into day. Trees and bushes that previously blocked area lighting and created shadows or blocked places of concealment were trimmed back and provide a more aesthetic appearance,” said Kiley. “Thanks to Chief Lewis, this took a collaborative effort involving multiple university departments.”
Lewis also makes sure individuals outside of the police department are abreast of happenings in its day-to-day operations. At the end of each patrol shift, the shift supervisor sends out a summary of the shift’s calls-for-service to the command staff and other patrol supervisors. This is used at shift change by the oncoming shift to brief them on the previous 24 hours. Chief Lewis recognized that these briefings should also be shared with specific key personnel outside of the police department who hold leadership positions, including the University President, Vice President of Business Affairs, the Legal Office, the Provost, and Student Affairs, among others.
“This not only kept university leadership up-to-date on current events but it also provided them with a better understanding of what issues the police department deals with daily,” said Kiley. “Every morning, Chief Lewis combines the three shift briefings into one report encompassing the previous day and emails them to the designated individuals.”
As for active shooter training, Lewis invites individual offices to request specialized training specific to their work location. An officer conducts the training in their office area, pointing out escape routes, defensive measures, and what actions they should take based on various situations.
Seemingly Small Technology Improvements Go a Long Way
While involving people from different groups within the campus community is crucial for maximizing safety, so is implementing technology that acts as a force multiplier. Aside from the traditional forms of security technology, such as video surveillance and access control (which Lewis improved), during his tenure, Lewis was able to secure the funding necessary to purchase an electronic key box to be installed in the patrol area.
“Prior to the purchase, multiple controlled key bundles were kept in a key box inside the department’s secure Communications Center. In order to turn in or receive a set of controlled keys, the police communications officer had to move away from their console and physically issue them,” said Kiley. “This routine occurred at each shift change for incoming and outgoing personnel and was a major disruption to the communications officers.”
Patrol personnel now access the key box using a card, providing better accountability of critical keys. It also allows communications officers to remain at their consoles, undistracted from their duties.
To further support his officers, Lewis collaborated with the department’s IT specialist and replaced its clunky, rarely utilized suggestion boxes mounted on the wall in the patrol shift briefing room with an electronic online suggestion box. Suggestions are forwarded directly to the chief and assistant chief’s email accounts with the option to remain anonymous.
“For those who include their name, they receive a response usually within 24-48 hours with an answer to their suggestion,” Kiley said. “Updates were provided for any suggestions that were implemented and the employee that made the suggestion was recognized department-wide. Suggestions increased ten-fold.”
The online suggestion box is also open to UTSA community members outside of the police department, creating greater lines of communication and supplementing Lewis’ vision for fostering a campus community that speaks up when something isn’t right or needs improvement.
Although Lewis took his talents to a different university on the East coast earlier this year, his legacy and commitment to safety and security at UTSA will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression on those he served.
“Chief Gerald Lewis’ quick wit, dedication to duty, commitment to excellence, attention to detail, and loyalty to the university have endeared him to his colleagues,” concluded Kiley. “UTSA is a better place today than it was yesterday because of him.”