Crime alerts at U of M may create misplaced perceptionby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
A slight increase in the number of crime alerts on or near the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus in the past few months has unnerved some, and annoyed others. But more alerts don't necessarily indicate more crime.
Minneapolis, Minn. — When a robbery, assault or other serious crime occurs on or near campus, everyone with a university e-mail account hears about it from the U of M police department.
Officials have alerted students, their parents and campus workers to seven unsettling crimes since the start of the school year. That's compared to four in the same period last year.
"While it's good to get the information out, and we're required to get the information out, I understand the anxiety it causes," said Greg Hestness, vice president for security and U of M Twin Cities campus police chief.
A federal law requires his department to distribute notices anytime a serious crime occurs on campus. The law is named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in 1986.
The same law does not apply to surrounding non-campus neighborhoods where residents rarely hear directly from police.
U of M freshman Zach Weis said the alerts have become a topic of conversation on campus. He admits he pays more attention to them since two men assaulted and tried to rob him last month. The incident happened in broad daylight, behind the building that houses the police station.
Weis' assault was one of several crimes that triggered campus notices. Weis said the alerts worry some students. Others simply ignore them.
"When I talk to my friends, some of them -- some of the girls, not to say anything -- but they're always like, 'I don't want to read those e-mails,'" Weis says. "They send out the alerts and everything and it's kind of scaring people. I did notice that one week there were three out in one week. That seemed to be a lot in one week."
But the flurry of alerts doesn't necessarily indicate an overall trend. Police Chief Hestness said he's closely watching a recent surge in robberies, but noted the number of serious crimes going back to the start of the year is about the same or lower compared to previous years.
Hestness wrestles with striking the right balance between alarming students and making them immune to the alerts.
"I think it does reach them," he said. "We haven't really studied the degree to which they internalize the message. We're pretty cautious about not overusing crime alerts. We don't want to be crying wolf and having them ignored. So we confine them to pretty serious crimes."
While warning students about potential threats is a challenge, getting the word out about an emergency as it's happening is a major hurdle.
There is no one way to quickly reach all of the 70,000 or so people who populate the campus. U of M officials use special alarm radios, a message system through the social networking Web site Facebook, and now a new service that sends a text message to subscribers' cell phones.
Ray Thrower is director of Safety and Security at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Professionals. He said the shooting at Virginia Tech in April prompted college security officials to look beyond the previously accepted method of sending emergency e-mail and telephone voice mail messages.
"What we learned from Virginia Tech was that doesn't reach all of the intended audience," Thrower said. "What we need to do is have a layered communications approach."
Thrower said that layered approach at Gustavus includes text messages similar to those at the U of M. Thrower says 65 percent of the student body has signed up for the service. The college is also looking into installing an outdoor public address system.
For U of M student Zach Weis, whatever crime-fighting and security methods the university employs, nothing replaces each individual's need to maintain a wary eye.
"I always feel like wherever you go there's going to be crime," Weis said. "You always have to watch. Whether it's rising, whether it's not as high, you just always have got to be on your toes."
Weis, a trained boxer, was able to fend off his attackers. Police officials say it's too early to determine whether that incident and others since then indicate any significant trends in the overall rate of crime.
- Morning Edition, 11/30/2007, 6:40 a.m.