How will light rail affect University of Minnesota campus safety?

(MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)
Harrington discusses LRT safety. (Alex Friedrich / MPR News)

University of Minnesota officials have been wondering how the June opening of three light-rail stations near the Minneapolis campus will affect campus safety.

During this past fall's spike in robberies, campus police noted that many of those committing the robberies didn't come from Minneapolis, but from metro-area suburbs.

And that was during a time when, as campus police Chief Greg Hestness says, the U has been "very difficult to get to. You really have to know how to get here."

So what will happen when the Minneapolis campus becomes much easier to reach?

At a campus-safety summit yesterday, Hestness told me the light rail is "a question mark."

President Eric Kaler called it "a wild card," and said, "We don't know exactly how it will play out."

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Kaler said:

"It will certainly improve access for everybody to the university community, so you might think that would make it easier for bad guys to get here. But on the other hand, I think the LRT will be an exceptionally poor choice for somebody who has committed a crime and is trying to get away. Because the stations are going to be well-lit, well-surveilled and well-policed. It would not be a good place for somebody to wait for a train while they're holding something stolen. We'll have to see how it works, but I think we'll see a push and a pull there."

Hestness says such concerns are "in the back of people's minds," but thinks the degree of safety  will depend in large part on how many people use it:

"If it's heavily used, committing a crime on or near it -- we've got a lot of witnesses -- is going to be less likely. Predators are not comfortable committing crimes in front of people. That's my hope."

MetroTransit Police Chief John Harrington said he thinks it'll actually make campus safety easier.

It will bring more people into the campus community, he said, and "the safest days in my experience in any city and on any college campus are when there's a crowd there."

That said, he and campus officials discussed teaching students how to be more streetwise when the ride the train and wait at the stops.