UI Police say the Urbana campus is as peaceful as it has been in years – not because there are fewer bad guys, but because of the implementation of several integrated security upgrades over the past two years.
“There have been a lot of improvements,” said Police Chief Barbara O’Connor. “We have more patrols in the campus district on a regular basis and the students have noticed.”
She said university officials refocused crime-prevention efforts and patrol strategies following a crime spree that occurred two years ago in and around the campus district.
It has led to increased funding for the police department – 24 percent over three years – allowing for the hiring of six new patrol officers and more telecommunications staff, as well as a host of specialized programs and equipment designed to stop crime before it occurs.
“We will be able to do a lot more with the additional staffing,” said Deputy Chief Jeff Christensen. “We’re feeling very good about how we are moving forward to meet our goal of being increasingly proactive.”
The department’s bike patrol has been revamped with new equipment and designated officers, residence hall security guards are now under police auspices, and recent equipment additions – such as the motorcycle-like sentinel (see related story) – are expected to have an exponential effect on blunting campus crime.
“This has been a programmatic strategic plan,” she said. “We have gotten more resources to meet critical needs and are utilizing them.”
In addition, the growing number of campus-based security cameras – which now total more than 600 – has allowed police to monitor high-traffic public areas in real time or for investigative follow-up.
O’Connor said cameras have been on campus for years (though before 2010 there were just 30 total), but their use and control have been scattershot.
“Our policy now requires one system,” she said. “Decentralized security systems are not good security systems. If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Police are already using card-access technologies to investigate on-campus crime, but technology alone is not the answer.
O’Connor said the collaboration between the police department and Housing Division makes good crime-fighting sense. All of the security officers have undergone 80 hours of classroom training.
“They will act as an extension of the police department,” she said.
Christensen said in just the first month of classes the security guards already were involved in the successful resolution of a couple of crimes involving bike thefts.
“They are for us a whole extra set of trained eyes and ears.”
Patrol officers also are out on foot more often and they are targeting specific activities such as aggressive panhandling, which had become an increasing nuisance in the past year. Officers are able to issue trespass notices on-scene when an individual’s behavior meets specific criteria such as causing harm, committing crimes, etc. A person’s past criminal history and documented contacts are also a deciding factor used by officers when issuing notices. The number of trespass notices that police hand out is up this year.
“We ban these individuals from our campus,” O’Connor said. That’s a no-cost change in policy. I think the officers have been doing a great job with trespass notices.
“It’s pretty clear the panhandling situation has improved a lot with our officers making behavior-based contacts,” O’Connor said, noting that some of the homeless aggressively seeking a handout in Campustown have extensive criminal backgrounds – some violent.
Students and faculty and staff members also this year are the beneficiaries of an enhanced Illini-Alert system, used in the event a serious crime has occurred on campus. The system sends out text, email and social media alerts when an emergency occurs. Still, when all is said and done, the community is the department’s most valuable tool for crime prevention, police officials said.
SafeWalks and other student-safety programs will continue, and the police department continues to offer educational and outreach programs for students.
For the first time, officers will hold a Resisting Aggression with Defense course for men, in addition to the women’s course.
The men’s pilot program is being offered because “most of the victims of robberies and batteries on campus are men,” according to department materials.
“Safety and risk-reduction continue to be everyone’s responsibility,” O’Connor said. “The community and police partnership is key to crime prevention. We only ask that community members take the time to get involved when they notice suspicious behavior.”
Sentinels are UIPD’s new guardians of the peace
Call them conversation-starters. That’s how the UI police are describing the new three-wheeled attention-getting patrol vehicles, called Sentinels, now being used to combat campus crime.
This year the department purchased two Sentinels – funded in part by a $10,000 donation from the Moms Association – and sightings of the unique vehicles have increased across campus.
“They’re kind of unusual looking so they’re highly visible,” said UIPD Capt. Skip Frost. “They really stand out but they’re also highly approachable. The public thinks they’re cool.”
For police, cool is a tool, especially when your job involves keeping order among often-spirited crowds in the 18- to 24-year-old range. Frost said officers using the vehicle are already reporting improved public rapport.
“A lot more people are coming up to talk to them,” he said. “We want to have that communication with people. Contacts are very important.”
There also are numerous tactical advantages with the two-cycle, electric-powered fleet.
“They can go anywhere a car can and most places they can’t,” he said. “They’re not very loud – a bike makes more noise.”
Each charge-up gives the Sentinels – which are fast enough to catch world-class sprinter Usain Bolt (if he needed catching) – about 80 miles of patrol power, about 20 round trips of the UI’s north-south border, from the Beckman Institute to the South Farms.
Fully marked and equipped with police lights, public-address system and siren, the Sentinels are something to avoid if you’re a “bad guy,” Frost said.
That’s one of the reasons they’ll be used by student patrols with Safewalks, the student-led safety program that provides a companion for students seeking a more-secure late-night walk home.
“That’s really going to be one of our main focuses for the Sentinels,” he said, noting student volunteers also carry police radios if assistance is needed. “We’re very proud of our student patrol program. Many of our officers started out doing that; many have been hired here as cops.”
Frost said the Sentinels have already seen more than public-relations success. So far, officers using the vehicles have spotted and chased down a drunk driver, and they were instrumental in a recent incident where shots were fired in the air.
“We’ve already had some documented successes,” he said.
Driving the vehicles is unusual and demands specialized training, Frost said.
“It’s not hard to navigate until you really get going, then you need to know what you’re doing,” he said. “Once you get the hang of it, it becomes an electric crime-fighting tool.”
Frost said the vehicles are part of a renewed effort to get UI police officers out of their vehicles and mingling with the public, where the so-called “action” is. He said foot patrols and an increased bicycle presence also are parts of that strategy.
“Face-to-face is key to us; that’s what good cops do,” he said. “You don’t make arrests from a squad car.”