Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

Upon arriving in Manhattan, Columbia students may quickly grow accustomed to the din of sirens wailing down city streets. But campus safety remains a major concern for students and their families. break This issue is key, as the University continues to evaluate ways to streamline the process despite criticism from security officers. While Columbia feels the squeeze of widespread financial challenges, the Department of Public Safety has been "working on ways to operate more efficiently and control expenses," said Renée Walker, assistant director of finance and administration for University Facilities—the division that oversees Public Safety. Though Facilities would not disclose specific budget information "due to our policy," as Walker wrote in an e-mail, she expressed confidence that the quality of Public Safety's service has not declined and will remain steady. "Because we allocate public safety resources and personnel as conditions warrant, these efficiency measures will not have an impact on the effectiveness of patrolling the campus or surrounding area," she explained. Yet as University officials remain optimistic about the status of law enforcement on campus, Public Safety officers have conveyed concerns about the adequacy of policing on campus and in Columbia-affiliated buildings. One officer, who was granted anonymity in order to protect his job, described significant shifts in security coverage that he attributed to new budget constraints. "Guards are getting spread thin," he said. "We cut a post at the Law School because of the economy. We replaced a guard at Law Library with a camera." After multiple attempts to interview Vice President for Public Safety James McShane, he declined to comment. The presence of uniformed personnel can discourage crime, so cutting patrols can limit Public Safety's capability for prevention. Officers are then forced to respond to crimes already perpetrated instead of stopping those crimes from occurring altogether. "We have a lot of cameras, but that isn't prevention. Those are for investigating afterwards," one Public Safety officer said, who was also granted anonymity to protect his position. Public Safety officials voiced determination to compensate for the department's budget tightening through electronic measures and more aggressive campaigns to keep students informed and vigilant. "Some examples of our recent efforts to reduce costs and improve efficiency include our new state-of-the-art, computer-assisted Dispatch/Records Management System (which allows us to use and track our resources more efficiently and helps us to work smarter with respect to crime pattern identification and the deployment of resources) and the expansion of our student escort service by providing a fully dedicated vehicle overnight until 6:00 a.m.," Walker, who spoke on behalf of Facilities, explained. Still, Columbia's security alert system has been known to perplex many people, as some schools receive different frequencies or forms of notification than others. "It's absurd. Public Safety never informs us about such incidents," Frederick Lee, SEAS '11, said. "If they do, it's a half a day late. We pretty much get alerts only after some horrifying incident happens. They just alert us to tell us what happened rather than to try to prevent something from happening. I usually end up hearing about stuff, if I hear about it at all, from Spec or by word of mouth." While Barnard, Columbia College, SEAS, General Studies, and the University's graduate schools and affiliates warn students of crimes via e-mail, the notification systems are separate, and groups of students often receive no e-mail notification at all. A recent case in which a flasher exposed himself to a Barnard student as she walked in Riverside Park triggered notification of the Barnard community but not of Columbia College. Joseph Ienuso, executive vice president for Facilities, said that, "Facilities staff members that are walking around campus all the time serve as eye and ears for Public Safety. We'll notice something that doesn't belong or someone who may be attempting to run away after something has happened and we'll reach out to Public Safety." After an incident has occurred, Public Safety and Facilities notify Columbia's Division of Student Affairs, which controls the transmission of alerts to students. "What I ask Jim [McShane] to do is to make sure that we're getting the information to the respective deans and Student Affairs people as quickly as possible and with complete information," Ienuso said. Kevin Shollenberger, dean of student affairs and associate vice president for undergraduate life, explained in a statement how his office has previously notified students of security incidents. "In the past, the Division of Student Affairs has posted security alerts received by the Department of Public Safety in highly visibly locations within each of the residence halls," he explained. Only under special circumstances, such as the discovery of an imminent threat, would Public Safety alert students directly via mobile phone, according to Ienuso. "That's a call that Jim [McShane] and I would make together. So if we really felt that there was a broad issue, we would communicate that to the larger community, and I think you'd see that with the text messaging system," he explained. Public Safety avoids responding to robberies and petty crime with the text messaging system at the risk of inoculating the University population against the urgency of such messages. "We don't want to over-sensitize the community. We want you to know that when we send a text message, you should read it," Ienuso said. Still, Sean Udell, CC '11 and student council representative, expressed his desire to receive more frequent security notification. "I read my e-mail really thoroughly and I haven't gotten an alert in a really long time," he said. "They launched that cell phone texting system—it sounds like a great idea, but I haven't gotten any warnings that way. If something happens on campus, I'd like to know about it because I do get complacent about my safety. And that's because it is safe here, and Public Safety should be commended for that, but I don't think that sending an e-mail would hurt." In response to concerns like these—and especially the frustration with decentralized, varied alerts—Student Affairs has developed a universalized e-mail listserv for CC, SEAS, and GS that directly forwards security notifications to students. The listserv is for use "at the discretion of the deans of students when there is an ongoing threat to students or employees in the Morningside Heights campus community—for example, criminal activity such as robberies or assaults where a suspect is not immediately apprehended," Shollenberger explained in his statement. Yet contracted guards continue to complain about the poor alert circulation. "We need information so at least we have a face to look for," said one contracted dormitory guard who was granted anonymity to protect his job. When a burglar struck Dodge Fitness Center, Kent Hall, and the Law School Library in January and early February—stealing several University ID cards—guards in Schapiro received no notification of the incidents. Public Safety released a printable security alert about the crimes that was never distributed to several dormitories. "He had IDs?" the guard asked when asked about the burglar. "There was no information, which makes no sense because that's right on campus." Another dormitory guard—who was also granted anonymity to protect his job—offered his perspective on the Department of Public Safety."Maybe they don't feel that we're at the same level, but, you know, we work here, and it's supposed to be one hand washes the other," he said. Betsy Morais contributed reporting to this article.

public safety crime public safety