Friday, November 03, 2000

Violence rare on local campuses

College crime data on Net

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

UC police chief Eugene Ferrara says cameras deter criminals from coming on campus.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        College students are more likely to have their book bags stolen than to be assaulted. Violence is rare, but property crimes are rife. That much is obvious from data posted for the first time on the Internet by thousands of schools.

        But raw crime data won't tell the wary whether a college or university is safe, security officers across Tristate campuses say.

        “What you want to know is: What's the chance of becoming a victim?” University of Cincinnati Police Chief Eugene Ferrara cautioned. “What you really want to know is what your risk is.”

  Enrollment figures and annual crime statistics are posted at:
        UC reported four rapes, three strong-arm robberies and seven aggravated assaults on the main campus of more than 28,000 students in 1999.

        In the same year, there were 433 thefts and 85 burglaries reported.

        Even so, Chief Ferrara said, if you divide the number of crimes by the number of students on campus, you get an indication of how safe the university is.

        Safety officials at other Tristate campuses were similarly confident of the general safety of their schools.

        Reported violence is rare, and the chiefs said their campuses are safe, given the numbers of people studying and working on them.

        However, figuring degrees of safety and risk is complex. Drawing inferences is iffy because of uncertainty over what data comply with the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. Students and parents should also examine things such as whether a school has call boxes, escort services and workshops on crime prevention.

        Anna Alich, 18, a freshman from Anderson Township, said even though she'd heard UC had a crime problem, she doesn't lock her dorm room when she goes down the hall and she is “comfortable” walk ing on campus at night. She does carry pepper spray.

        The 1990 campus come-clean law was prompted by the murder of Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University. Her parents later learned that 38 violent Lehigh campus crimes had not been made public in the three years before her death.

        The law requires post-secondary institutions whose students get federal aid — from research universities to beauty schools — to gather campus crime statistics and make them available to anyone who asks.

        A 1998 amendment ordered the 1,662 public col leges and universities, 1,925 private campuses and 2,580 proprietary schools to send those annual figures to the Department of Education where they would be posted on the Internet.

        Tristate campus police chiefs support the Clery law, but attempts to close loopholes have created new problems.

        “Now, we've got what looks like the tax law,” Chief Ferrara said. “Every time they try to clarify, I get more confused.”

        Xavier University Police Chief Michael Couch agreed, saying, “There's still a lot of gray areas.”

        Nothing is murkier than interpretations of “reasonably contiguous” public areas where off-campus crimes must be included in annual reports. They range from UC's definition — streets, sidewalks and parks bordering its campuses — to Miami University's embrace of all Oxford.

        Mandated filings “miss the mark” in other ways, said Cathryn House, chief of police at Miami University. She must report such liquor law violation as underage beer possession but not public intoxication or DUI.

        After some near-campus robberies in 1995, XU student government persuaded the school to provide day/night shuttles to parking lots, Chief Couch said. Students like the convenience and added safety so much that they pay half the annual cost, he added.

        As for “crimes of opportunity,” Chief Couch and others blame students who leave bedrooms unlocked and book bags, purses, bicycles and portable computers unattended.

        It's a perennial effort to smarten up students, and results are mixed — as are perceptions of campus safety, UC students indicated.

        Sophomore Matt Carlin said Chief Ferrara gives a “big spiel” during orientation. “Usually it's exciting.”

        Still, Mr. Carlin, 20, from Madeira, does not lock his room at his fraternity, assuming someone always is around and strangers won't wander in and steal something.

        In many ways, that attitude is typical, Chief Ferrara and colleagues at neighboring schools said. Students treat their campus residences like bedrooms at home.

        Faced with naive new audiences every year, officials at Tristate campuses walk a fine line enlisting student help in reducing crime without making them fearful.

        In the same way, campus police are always seeking more effective means of raising the hue and cry when a serious problem erupts.

        At Miami, Chief House said, she risks overreaction by papering the campus with fliers and using the Internet. “We tell people when bad things happen.”

        Sometimes, it's spitting into the wind, Chief House added. When a burglar was stealing from sleeping students this fall, some unlocked and open doors were decorated with her warning fliers.

        As at many campuses, Northern Kentucky University's public safety department runs workshops that address personal and property risks, as well as coping with cops and self-defense.

        Pursuing that balance between wariness and a sense of well-being also motivates UC's recent installation of two digital surveillance cameras on the Clifton Avenue campus.

        The equipment produces clear images from parking lots and campus greens at night.

        “It can do what we want it to do. The question is whether we want to do it,” UC Chief Ferrara said.

        The answer probably is yes if privacy questions can be resolved and an increased sense of safety justifies the expense of a campus-wide surveillance system even though “open areas account for a little bit of the crime” and most crimes occur in residences where he won't put cameras.

        More than catching criminals, Chief Ferrara said, cameras should deter them from coming on campus.

        It would also help if architects redoing the main campus used light to illuminate rather than to “make a statement,” Chief Ferrara said. “If I had my way, you could get a sun tan coming on this campus at night.”


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