U supports crime prevention contest

The contest will award cash prizes for projects that could help prevent crime.

Nicolas Hallett

After an academic year marked by worries about crime, University of Minnesota student groups and administrators are partnering to award students who can come up with ways to stop crime.

Student groups Co-Lab and The Echo Spot founded the monthlong Crime Innovation Contest, which begins Wednesday, in response to a spike in violent and brazen crimes during the fall semester.

Students will be able to submit their ideas for creative ways to prevent crime, and the winning projects — judged by other students, community members and University police officers — will win prizes.

The contest begins April 2, with a submission deadline of April 10.

While the University has attempted community outreach programs during and after the crime wave, Co-Lab President Jon Melgaard said it’s been a “one-way conversation,” and students remain an untapped source of potential for ideas and solutions. Among University-hosted events were a forum with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and a Student Safety town hall forum intended to gauge student opinion about the issue.

But those events have limits, Echo Spot President Nadya Nguyen said, and neighborhood residents and students with schedule or transportation constraints often can’t attend them. The new project, which will exist primarily online, takes place over a longer time period and will mitigate these concerns, she said.

“What if a student comes up with a website or [smartphone] app that is effective for crime prevention? That would be phenomenal,” Nguyen said. “It’s about starting that conversation, and implementation is a bonus.”

The groups are asking students to submit their projects online, where other students and community members can comment and offer feedback.

Students will present the top-10-voted projects May 1 at a showcase event, where members of the involved student groups and University police officers will act as judges to award $1,500 in cash prizes.

Nguyen said winning projects could then look for funding from the University or other sources to actually implement the ideas.

Multiple groups have signed on to back the project, including the Minnesota Student Association, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the Office for Student Affairs and the Office of Public Engagement. Nguyen, a senior finance major, said she was pleasantly surprised when University administrators reached out to get involved.

“I’ve worked with student groups my entire career at the [University], and collaborating with administrators has always been difficult,” she said. “This is the first time they’ve come to us.”

University police Chief Greg Hestness will also host an online Ask Me Anything, or AMA, on The Echo Spot’s website as part of the project.

Hestness said it’s difficult for police to hold a dialogue with the University’s large student body. Police often feel they’re making worthwhile contact with community members, he said, but then find that they’re only reaching a small segment of the population.

“There are just a lot of things we probably could respond to and would have good information for,” Hestness said, “but they just don’t get to ask, and we don’t get to answer.”

Hestness said he’s looking forward to the AMA and expects the amount of crime, police action plans and concerns about racial profiling to be the major talking points.

“I want to let people know we get it and we’re working on these sorts of things, even though the communication isn’t always possible,” he said.

Assistant Dean of Students Amelious Whyte said the contest is a great way to engage students on the crime issue. The contest could end up being a platform that the University uses to crowd-source solutions for other campus issues, he said.

“There are a variety of things that students may think, ‘Wow. I wish [the University] could do this better,’” Whyte said. “This has the opportunity to bring people together and find solutions in a creative fashion.”

Across the country, Whyte said, colleges are using technology to address campus safety. One example that stood out to him was at Virginia Tech, where a victim of the 2007 shooting invented a smartphone app that alerts students during emergencies.

“What that said to me was creative ideas don’t necessarily come from the experts,” he said. “They can come from students and other people, too.”