How safe is campus?

By Steve Contorno

Following a string of armed robberies on campus, the Virginia Tech massacre and several alleged thefts involving former University athletes, campus safety has become a hot-button issue. With so much coverage outlining these high-profile crimes, campus safety was once again brought into the spotlight.

“It definitely made me a little more cautious to walk around at night,” said Caryn Lichtenberg, junior in LAS, about the armed robberies.

According to the annual crime report conducted by the University Division of Public Safety released last week, crime on campus is actually down in the recent reporting period. Though not significantly, criminal sexual assaults and robberies both fell during the reported period, which spanned from Sept. 1, 2006, to May 13, 2007. Peeping Tom and public indecency crimes dropped from 14 to six total incidents.

Though the numbers seem to be a positive step in campus safety, Assistant Chief of Police Jeff Christensen said they can’t be looked at as completely reliable.

“Obviously we would rather see a decline than an increase,” Christensen said. “A lot of these are just statistics and crime statistics are real dynamic. You need to be cautious when you look at them because if you look at something like criminal sexual assaults, well, those aren’t all the criminal sexual assaults that happen on campus but those are the ones where the assault survivor makes a decision to pursue a police report. So those numbers can be deceiving.”

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The numbers become even more deceiving when looking at aggravated assault and battery crimes. A quick glance at the statistics shows that these sorts of crimes are down to 30 from 82, a significant drop considering criminal sexual assaults only dropped from 17 to 16 and robberies from 43 to 39.

However, according to the report, after 2006 only crimes involving substantial bodily injury and/or a weapon were included as aggravated assault, opposed to previous years when minor injuries were included. The change in categorization skewed the data, making it difficult to compare this school year’s attacks to last years.

In recent years, comparing crime statistics to the University of Iowa and Indiana University, Big Ten schools with a similar enrollments (Illinois, 36,738 students; Iowa, 28,705; Indiana, 38,903), Illinois has some high numbers. In 2005, the University had far more aggravated assaults (30 compared to 10 at Iowa in 2005 and eight at Indiana in 2006) and burglaries (112 compared to 33 at Iowa and 69 at Indiana). Sexual assaults and robberies are more in line with the other schools.

“We have challenges like every large campus in the country,” Christensen said. “We’ve had a decline here again and I think the main message we’re sending out with that is we don’t want to build a false sense of security.”

Part of the problem, Christensen said, is the illusion some students get when entering a college campus.

“Overall, it’s a safe environment, but sometimes people come to a college campus and think all the other ills of society are absent from that, and that’s definitely not the case,” Christensen said. “People need to continue to be alert and work with us.”

Associate Chancellor Peg Rawles echoed those sentiments.

“We realize that we don’t live in a bubble,” Rawles said. “We live in a whole community and we’re not immune to (the armed robberies) occurring again.”

Even after the armed robberies, Lichtenberg, like several other students, said she still felt safe traveling on campus.

“I always try to walk with other people and things like that,” Lichtenberg said. “But I think (campus safety is) pretty good. With such a huge campus, stuff like (armed robbery) is bound to occur. But for the most part I feel pretty safe.”

Steve McNamee, sophomore in LAS, said he never heard about the armed robberies and has usually felt self on campus.

“I haven’t had any issues with safety being a problem,” McNamee said. “I use Safe Rides a lot and I rarely walk around campus alone.”

Walking on campus with others is just one way students can protect themselves from any sorts of attacks or danger. Christensen said awareness and eliminating opportunity are two other ways to lessen someone’s chances of harmful confrontations on campus, and said he hopes that when the University Police try to inform students of dangers, it doesn’t cause widespread panic.

“When we put the safety bulletin out, the object of that is to let people know what is going on and they can be aware and avoid certain areas,” Christensen said. “Awareness is a good thing and we definitely don’t want people to be fearful because we look at quality of life issues and we want people to feel like it’s a safe campus. But when there’s a string of crimes people are going to be concerned for their safety and that’s why we notify them.”

Notification is also an issue the administration has been working on since the Virginia Tech shooting. Rawles said the University had been working on preventing those sorts of attacks well before the massacre in Blacksburg, Va.

“Even before Virginia Tech we’ve been out looking for a product to serve the need for emergency notification quickly,” Rawles said. “I think we’ve identified that product. I don’t know if the final steps in the process have been taken. But that was all underway before Virginia Tech attack. It has many of the features that would help us respond in terms of notification that have highlighted since Virginia Tech. So I think we feel good that we were already in the marketplace and we’re supplementing our means to communicate to students, staff and visitors on campus.

“We’re training those who will need to respond – whether it be police officers or administrators – to such an incident on campus.”

According to the campus crime report, the majority of incidents that occurred during the last school year were between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. and on weekends. Christensen said drinking plays a major role in campus safety.

“We know there’s a huge correlation between these crimes and alcohol, for either the victim and/or the suspect,” Christensen said.

Both Christensen and Rawles said the University’s Division of Public Safety and students need to work together to prevent crimes on campus.

“Students and others within the community need to take the self defense tips you have to most places,” Rawles said. “We’re three communities with over 150,000 people at any point in time. They should be aware of their surroundings. They shouldn’t be left with the feeling that the campus community is immune to more serious acts that occur in other cities. But I also think that a very positive message can be sent out that with information, good police work and people noticing their surroundings, there are things you can do to increase your chances of not being in a crime, even if you cannot bring it down to zero.”

For information on how to protect yourself on campus, go to http://www.dps.uiuc.edu/safety_resources05.htm