With more than 450 eyes on campus, security keeps watch

Dan Haugen

Every week, Stacey Heino takes a ticket, pulls ahead and parks her green Jetta in the Washington Avenue Ramp before trekking off to her Tuesday night class.

Heino said she takes “common sense” steps to stay safe, such as always keeping a cell phone with her after dark. Statistically, her chances of becoming a crime victim are extremely remote.

But odds are good that she is being watched.

From her fifth-floor parking space, down the elevator and through the tunnel to Moos Tower, Heino passes multiple surveillance cameras – all property of the University’s recently formed Department of Central Security.

More than 450 closed-circuit cameras watch the University’s Twin Cities campus. Coverage is focused in parking facilities but also extends into other locations such as tunnels and research labs.

“I prefer having cameras,” Heino said. “Sometimes it’s 10 o’clock by the time I get out of here.”

Via microwaves, copper wire and fiber optic cable, the cameras all feed into a single room on the third floor of the Transportation and Safety Building, home base for central security’s surveillance operations.

The interim department was born out of the University’s post-Sept. 11 public safety restructuring, announced one year ago by then-University President Mark Yudof.

Bob Janoski – a 19-year veteran of the University Police Department – was chosen to lead the department by George Aylward, interim assistant vice president for public safety and University police chief.

“The goal was to integrate the design, installation, service and monitoring of security systems on campus,” Janoski said. “In the past, if I needed a card access system, an alarm system and video surveillance installed in my department, I might need to make three calls.”

Central security is now charged with managing all three of those systems, which were previously handled by Facilities Management, Classroom Management and Parking and Transportation Services, respectively.

Along with all security duties, the University also shifted personnel and salaries from those departments to central security. The department’s budget consists of the transferred salaries and an approximately $2 million, one-time internal University appropriation.

Because its services were all previously available from other departments, most of central security’s infrastructure was already in place when it began operations July 1, 2002.

Video Surveillance

Besides establishing a business office and rearranging the public safety hierarchy, the biggest change has been adding digital surveillance cameras to Parking and Transportation Services’ already extensive closed-circuit network.

Steve Frisk, who has worked with the surveillance system since its inception, said the University first started installing security cameras in the late 1980s.

“The unfortunate part is that all of this grew out of rape and murder,” Frisk said. “At one time there was a serious problem with a rash of sexual assaults that took place on campus and that included parking structures. That led to a lot of people taking a long, hard look at security in parking structures.”

In 1989, the Minnesota Supreme Court found a parking garage operator liable after a woman was raped in her parked car. Frisk said the case – Erickson v. Curtis Investment Co. – opened the possibility of lawsuits against the University if it did not take certain steps to keep its parking facilities safe.

The University already had a head start, Frisk said, installing its first cameras five years earlier in the 21st Avenue Ramp. Other parking facilities were equipped as they were built, he said.

Of the more than 450 security cameras in operation today, 90 percent are still located in parking facilities.

“Before there was a central organization like this, and before there was central funding, Parking and Transportation Services recognized the need to do this,” Aylward said. “They realized that if it’s 4 o’clock in the morning and someone parks their car in a ramp, there should be a mechanism for making sure they’re safe.”

At least two employees are on duty 24 hours per day, seven days per week and 365 days per year monitoring the cameras from the third floor of the Transportation and Safety Building.

“(The cameras) have been used to help catch people breaking into cars. They’ve been used on some low-level fraud and some vandalism, but the primary goal of putting these in is protecting people,” Frisk said.

Hundreds of camera images cycle through 22 television screens in the surveillance room. If employees notice something out of the ordinary, they can lock in on a certain camera, begin recording in higher quality and zoom in on subjects.

“You spend lots and lots of time looking at empty elevator cars, empty stairwells,” Frisk said. “You’re basically just sitting around waiting for something to happen.”

Typically one to two incidents a week are reported to police. Many of them are minor infractions such as skateboarding or rollerblading in parking facilities.

Protecting research areas

Last summer, equipment was added to the surveillance room to view video from new digital cameras being installed in sensitive science and research areas.

Much of the new investment went into the new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building, which opened in the fall. Central security spent $350,000 on cameras, card access and alarm systems for the science building.

“Research programs are where I think our greatest vulnerability and risk was, and still is,” said Richard Bianco.

As assistant vice president for regulatory affairs, Bianco is in charge of making sure University research follows all the rules, including many federal mandates dealing with research lab security.

At a University Senate research committee meeting in November, Bianco expressed frustration with the way University security spending had been handled since Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was a little discouraged last year. I didn’t know how to apply for funds to do things. There were no procedures,” Bianco said. “It really delayed the implementation of some of the security in the research programs.”

Bianco told the research committee the Sept. 11 attacks did not change the threat to University research, but they did change how research security projects were funded. Bianco said that before Sept. 11, he would “beg” for money from a number of different departments.

“You couldn’t do that after Sept. 11. Everybody said, ‘You’ve gotta go talk to George (Aylward).’ The problem was that, overnight, (central security) wasn’t organized to do that,” Bianco said.

Bianco said funds for security spending were in limbo for much of 2002 as the University sorted out its priorities.

“I was working on these issues for a long time. We were moving with steady progress. I didn’t want to take six months off,” he said. “It’s not their fault. I agree that eventually it will be easier. It is already, now that it’s gotten organized.”

Bianco credited Kathleen O’Brien, who took over as vice president for University Services in September, for improving the central security effort.

“She has really refocused and organized it,” Bianco said. “We needed that leadership.”

His praise for O’Brien focused on her efforts to help set a list of security priorities for central security to work from.

O’Brien – to whom Aylward reports – said she will make the decision this spring on the future of central security and the new public safety structure.

“My work this fall has been working with the public safety units, assessing what work we’re getting done and determining if this is a good structure to stay in place permanently,” she said.

O’Brien declined to give a preliminary review of the department but said she’ll be considering a variety of factors in making her decision.

“I’ll be looking at whether we’re providing services that the University needs – whether we have the competencies the University needs to stay safe and prepared,” she said. “And also, I will be looking at financial issues because of the budget.”

Central security director Janoski said the department is financially streamlined compared to the earlier, decentralized security structure.

“There’s an increased level of efficiency and lower overhead costs,” he said. “By bringing these groups under one roof, the administrative costs have been reduced.”

With the University facing tough budget cuts next year, central security’s value could be questioned. But Frisk said security is worth the investment.

“If you look at the statistics, this is a very safe place, and that’s just great, unless you’re the statistic.”

Dan Haugen covers research and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]