SafeWalks provides secure way for students to travel at night

SafeRides and SafeWalks are courtesy services funded by the University that operate during the night to ensure students make it home safely after a late night of studying at the library or after a night out. SafeWalks can be reached at 217-333-1216.

Unlike SafeRides, the SafeWalks program is carried out by the Student Patrol, a group of students who are trained by the University Police to provide an additional patrol presence on campus — giving warnings for noise complaints and escorting students home.

Sergeant Joan Fiesta said the number of students who utilize the SafeWalks program has increased this semester.

As of Sep. 26, the University Police had received 237 calls requesting SafeWalks. For the entire fall 2009 semester, they received 211. In previous semesters, Fiesta said the department received between 70 and 80 calls for SafeWalks.

“There absolutely has been (an increase in number of safe walks with the increase in crime alerts),” Fiesta said. “With the crime alerts, it’s really nice to have a higher awareness within the campus community that crime is occurring so that people are taking positive steps (such as) utilizing programs like SafeWalks.”

Fiesta said on any night there are up to 12 student patrollers on campus.

“People look to the police department to provide safety,” she said. “However, with education, we can empower a community. One of the tools we are able to supply is the walking escorts.”

The University employs 30 patrol officers, all of which are students. Fiesta said the officers come from all academic disciplines and do not need prior experience or an interest in law enforcement to get the job.

Every night at 9 p.m. when their shifts have started, the patrol officers are dispatched in pairs to different zones on campus. With students spread over campus, it usually takes no more than 10 minutes for a pair to reach a student who needs to be walked home. They patrol the streets until 2 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. on weekends.

Andrew Deal, senior in LAS, has been a student patrol officer for the past year. Although working the graveyard shift can make getting to his 9:30 a.m. class a challenge, Deal said he has continued to work as a patrol officer because the work is interesting, and “it’s a productive way to help out and make money at the same time.”

The student patrollers are split into three teams. Each team rotates working every third night.

Billy Johnson, senior in LAS, said he does not mind working the late hours because the job is so rewarding.

“(As a group), we’re averaging just under 6 safe walks a night. That’s six potential crimes that we know did not happen,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the “overwhelming majority” of calls received for safe walks have been from females. Most often students need to be walked home from a library or from the bars, he said.

Like the U.S. Postal Service, SafeWalks operates 365 days of the year. Not surprisingly, Deal said working outside in the middle of the night when the weather is bitter and cold “is the worst.”

“I’ve worked in negative seven (degrees) before,” he said. Even after piling on layers of thermals, pants, snow pants, a fleece pullover, snow jacket, stocking cap, gloves and snow boats, “at that point, you’re still cold.”

Deal said raising awareness about SafeWalks is critical to its success in helping students return home safe and sound. Over the past year, student patrol representatives made dinner announcements to sorority houses to promote the program.

“The more people that know that number, the better,” Deal said. “A lot of people know we exist, but don’t know the number (where they can call for a walk). The awareness has gone up tremendously in the past year and now most people who see us know who we are.”

The patrollers will walk a student anywhere on campus and just outside of campus. On a night over the summer, Johnson said he walked a girl back to campus from Steak ‘N’ Shake on Neil St. On another unusual night, Deal said he and his patrol partner walked 10.5 miles over their six-hour shift.

“I think (SafeWalks) is extremely effective because it puts more people out on the street who have a direct communication with the police,” Fiesta said. “It’s nice on this campus to have a group of people who are willing to provide safe transport.”

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