U of M ramping up security after campus crime spike

U of M attempted robbery
In this file photo, a University of Minnesota police vehicle is parked outside Anderson Hall at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus, Monday afternoon, Nov. 11, 2013.
AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jeffrey Wheeler

The University of Minnesota is increasing security after a rash of campus-related crime this school year.

But university officials also want students to be more vigilant.

With that in mind, when the spring semester started today, University Police Chief Greg Hestness welcomed students back at Coffman Memorial Union with donuts, coffee and a message about staying safe.

"It's not a matter of blaming the victim," said Hestness, who leads a 50-officer campus police force. "It's that we get a new 25 percent of our student body every year. It's pretty much constantly re-educating them. They need to look out for themselves as well. They need to think about their surroundings."

So far this school year, police have issued 17 crime alerts around the U, including warnings about sexual assaults, robberies and a suspected gunman on campus. That's prompted public concern and a state Senate committee hearing.

In response, the university added three officers who on weekends will pay particular attention to the hours between 9:30 p.m. and 3 a.m. It also is extending hours of shuttle bus services and rolling out key-card access to all university buildings.

The university also is adding dozens of student staff to its Security Monitor program and installing 46 new cameras to the about 1,700 watching the Twin Cities campuses now.

"What we'd like to do is establish a perimeter around campus with surveillance, as well as our main traffic areas through campus, but then knit that together, with other things like the cameras on Cedar Riverside that the city has, the MnDOT cameras," Hestness said. "We have some traffic cameras. Some of the new property developers — we've talked to them about their surveillance system.

But university officials hope the most effective changes will come from students. They want students to think ahead about getting around safely, to use public transportation and tap into existing services. The university offers 24-hour walk and bike escort services, and the Gopher Chauffeur program, a free door-to-door campus transportation service for the campus community.

"When we talk about educating students, in partnership with the student organizations and the police officers, we've done walk-throughs through our residence halls to remind them — don't walk alone," said Pam Wheelock, vice president for university services. "When something happens, call 911, and don't let your friends walk alone."

Lydia Veeder, a graduate student studying physical therapy, welcomed the changes, including better lighting around campus.

"I think it's a good idea," she said. "I mean there's a lot of areas on campus, that maybe aren't very well lit, and I think if there's more of a police presence later at night, especially when kids are walking home from the library, from the gym, it's going to deter criminals, I think, off-campus."

But like others, Veeder wonders if fears of a crime wave are based on perceptions. Federal law requires colleges and universities to report crimes more publicly than cities, counties or other major public institutions.

"The only reason people think it's more dangerous is because we get those alerts, you know, every time something happens," she said. "It happens everywhere else. We just don't get notifications on our email like we do on campus."

University officials say they'll also be taking some further steps as the spring semester goes on. They're going to convert all campus buildings to electronic key-card access to better control who comes and goes, particularly outside of regular business hours.

President Eric Kaler is planning a town hall meeting with students to talk about safety and security issues. The university also is planning a forum on racial profiling and how to address it.

U of M officials also say they're going to advocate for proposed legislation for so-called kill switches on cell phones that can make them inoperable if they're stolen. Police said iPhones and other smart phones are among the main targets of on-campus crime.

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