Crime at, around Columbia prevalent despite security office’s reassurances

By Samuel Charles

Columbia’s Office of Campus Safety and Security only minimally adheres to the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law that requires all higher education institutions participating in federal aid programs to disclose certain pieces of information regarding campus crime.

Between Aug. 29 and Dec. 31, 2010, there were 41 thefts on campus property reported to security, an average of one theft every three days. But none of the seven Campus Safety Alerts, also known as “timely notices,” issued during that time frame pertained to theft. Columbia’s Office of Safety and Security says it will issue a Campus Safety Alert when it deems an offense to be “a serious or continuing threat.”

On Jan. 26, the Office of Safety and Security’s Web page stated it “will provide current information for the latest posted campus alerts involving incidents such as: thefts on campus, suspicious individuals and other types of crime relevant to our campus.”

However, once The Chronicle brought the discrepancy to the attention of the Office of Safety and Security, the language on the Web page was rewritten.

“[The Chronicle has] brought up something which we now notice we need to change,” said Director of Campus Safety and Security Martha Meegan. “That language [on the Campus Safety and Security Web page] does not truly define the spirit of timely notice.”

Meegan later added there is no provision in The Clery Act mandating thefts be given timely notices.

The alerts currently posted on the site relate to robbery, battery and sexual offenses.

The Clery Act—which was enacted in 1990 in memory of Jeanne Clery, a freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who was raped and murdered by another student in 1986—states an institution must issue a timely warning to “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus … unless issuing a notification will compromise efforts to contain the emergency.”

“If we were experiencing a rash of thefts to where there were patterns to them and we could identify suspects’ descriptions … we’re going to put those descriptions out to people,” said Associate Vice President of Safety and Security Robert Koverman.

One problem with issuing more alerts, Koverman added, is the possibility of the community becoming numb to their seriousness.

“The dilemma everyone has is reporting too much where people begin to think you’re crying wolf,” Koverman said. “We don’t want to saturate people with information [so much so] they begin to take notices for granted.”

At first, the community would be more responsive if more alerts were given, but eventually that feeling would wear off, agreed David McKirnan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, he added more alerts could garner more attentiveness on campus.

“Change is often more salient to us than stability,” McKirnan said. “If [the college] did report all the crime [it] knew of, it may be less striking, but [the community] might walk around with the notion that campuses are not all that safe. Potentially, [the college’s] motivation is to disguise how many crimes actually occur … to some extent, that’s disingenuous.”

On Oct. 22 and Oct. 26, 2010, the Office of Safety and Security issued alerts warning the college community of students being robbed, one at the intersection of West Polk Street and South Plymouth Court, and the other in the 600 block of South Dearborn Street. Both incidents involved residents of Columbia’s on-campus housing units.

However, two other robberies occurred in the area within that same week—one on Oct. 19 in the 500 block of South Clark Street, and the other in the 1100 block of South State Street. Neither incident prompted an alert, but under the law Columbia has no obligation to issue one because they did not occur on campus property and were not reported to campus security.

“We listen to the First District and the all-city police scanner, so if we pick up activity [relevant] to us … we may investigate it further and put a notice out,” Koverman said. “When it goes beyond Columbia, it really depends on the proximity.”

The patrol boundaries for Columbia’s security officers are from Clark Street on the west, the 218 S. Wabash Ave. Building on the north, Michigan Avenue on the east and 16th Street on the south.

Colleges must also keep records of all incidents reported to campus security in a daily incident report. The log must contain—besides incidents that occur within campus buildings—any crime that occurs adjacent to campus property. In Columbia’s case, that includes areas such as sidewalks outside campus buildings.

Columbia posts an updated version of the incident report every month, but a more up to date report is available by request in the Office of Campus Safety and Security.

In Koverman’s two years working for Columbia, he said he has never heard of a student coming to ask to see the daily crime log.

Along with a daily log and timely warnings, colleges must disclose crime statistics for the last three years so students, or potential students and their families, can judge the campus’ safety.

In Columbia’s annual crime statistics, there are several categories displaying an “N/A” instead of an actual number, one of them being drug law violations occurring within a student residence center that were reported to the Chicago Police Department.

There were 187 drug law violations and 378 liquor law violations reported to Columbia’s Residence Life Office in 2009.

The difference between a drug law violation and an arrest depends on which party—whether it is Columbia’s Residence Life Office or the CPD—administers some sort of reprimand.

“It is not uncommon for the Chicago Police Department to come on campus and make a judgment call as to whether or not an arrest will be made,” Meegan said.

Koverman said the violations are administrative actions taken by Columbia.

“The Chicago police don’t have violations,” he said. “They’re either arrested or it doesn’t exist.”

Being an urban campus presents a challenge, Meegan said.

“The unique thing about urban institutions [is] we don’t have closed campuses,” she said. “We report that which is on our block. It’s more confusing in this type of environment.”