University Police see decline in crimes

by Jim Martyka

At the end of each year, University Police Chief Joy Rikala looks over the year’s crime statistics and determines areas in which the police have improved and those that they need to work on.
As last year’s total crime statistics show, Rikala can be proud.
Several categories of crime on or near campus showed a dramatic decline in comparison with the previous year. These include thefts, which dropped 18 percent, motor vehicle break-ins, which dropped 33 percent, and burglaries, which dropped 12 percent.
Rikala said a main reason for this drop in theft-related crimes is that students and staff members are generally more careful on campus. “We’ve been working to get people to understand our society and people have been listening,” Rikala said. “People are starting to understand personal responsibility.”
As for other declines in crime, including criminal sexual conduct, Rikala said the involvement of the police has contributed.
“We are working more proactively,” she said. This includes letting people know that police are always available, she said.
Rikala said sexual conduct is one statistic they spend a lot of time working on. She said police are very active with the Program Against Sexual Violence on campus. According to statistics, this year’s reported sexual crimes were cut in half from last year.
But Susanna Short, who is an assistant director of the sexual violence program, said these numbers aren’t reflective of the actual sexual crimes around campus.
“A decline is certainly not what we see,” she said. In the last fiscal year, Short said the group counseled about 150 people.
Not all are calling to report sexual-conduct crimes; the service also answers questions and concerns about sexual violence. The program has already dealt with about 110 people since July 1, Short said.
Despite police efforts, she said sometimes these crimes are not reported. “Some people just might not feel comfortable reporting to the police,” she said.
Minneapolis police also reported a decrease in both rape, by 8 percent, and other sex offenses, by 6 percent, when the department released its summary statistics in mid-January. Like the University police, they also reported a slight decrease in robbery and burglary. Major increases in Minneapolis crime were in prostitution, by 22 percent, and arson, by 11 percent.
University reports also showed minor increases in specific categories, such as property damage, which rose about 5 percent, and threats, which rose 51 percent.
The main category in which crime increased, however, was trespass/lurking/vagrancy. Compared to 1995, these reported crimes rose in 1996 by 313 percent.
But Rikala said this is a statistic they like to see. “It means we’re enforcing the policy,” she said.
University Police implemented a new trespass warning system in the spring of last year.
Sgt. Joe May said that in the past, people caught trespassing were usually given a warning and told to leave. In some cases, trespassers were warned on several occasions. Many of these warnings weren’t reported.
This new system, which stemmed from a recent statute ordering police to issue written warnings in these cases, has allowed officers to identify frequent offenders.
May said that when police notice someone behaving disruptively in a building, they issue a warning that either bans the person from a building or from the whole campus. Each warning is then reported. If the person is found in the restricted area again, police can issue a citation or arrest the individual.
Rikala said that this is the main reason for the increase in this category. She also said the system has helped police keep access to the University open for guests, students and staff members, but not trespassers.
“Unless you have a legitimate purpose at the University, you’re not welcome here,” she said.
Rikala and May have also said that the banning of certain frequent trespass offenders also contributes to the decrease in other crimes, especially theft.
Students said they feel University Police have helped them not to worry about crime on campus. “The (police escorts) and other officers are really visible to people,” said Amy Chen, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts. “It’s a very comforting thing.”
Others feel that more has to be done, however. “It (the campus) isn’t completely safe.” said Erik Mornes, a sophomore in the Institute of Technology.
But Mornes also said many University crimes can be avoided with general awareness. “If people are aware, they can pursue a more conscious effort to prevent these crimes,” he said.
Increasing awareness of crime is Rikala’s goal. One way police are reaching this goal is by making improvements to the University’s crime-alert network, which posts information on crime at various campus locations.
Rikala said the police are also setting up two community information resource centers. One will be located in Wilson Library, and the other will be in Frontier Hall.
She said these will be places for students and staff to obtain information on what is happening with police, crime and their community.
“It’s also a way for the police to become more active with the community,” she said. And that, Rikala said, is the best way to prevent crime.