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Solving the University

The recent string of robberies and assaults across and near Grounds are part of a complex equation that indicates no easy answer

Crime is up in the University area - or so it may seem from the numerous recent safety e-mails. On July 20, the University Police Department announced that a student reported being sexually assaulted the previous night. The next day, police officials announced an individual's report of a forced robbery. These incidents were the beginning of a string of eight alerts, three of which occurred in October alone.

Nevertheless, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo said overall crime in the off-Grounds area has decreased during the last five years. These incidents are not unusual for a University town, he said, noting instead that "the administration is just pushing information harder while students are becoming more aggressive reporting crimes."\n\nCrime publicized \nIn general, crime has become a more prominent topic of public discussion, thanks in part to the e-mail alert system and extensive news coverage of certain incidents during the past year. Morgan Harrington's disappearance last October sparked a massive public and police effort to find the missing Virginia Tech student - an effort that continued until her remains were discovered almost four months later. Investigations to find out who was responsible continue today. Yeardley Love's death and the subsequent arrest of fellow lacrosse player George Huguely were covered extensively by national media. In one story, The Washington Post connected the event with athletic culture and alcoholism at universities. Many have connected it to discussions of domestic violence.

Such a response from the public can have wider effects. Longo said public attention - and not simply statistics that say crime is up or down - is a factor in determining how police respond to crime.\n"Even one complaint, especially from a U.Va. student or a parent of a student, can lead to increased police presence in a given area," he said.

Fourth-year College student Nadia Khatouri, who serves as co-chair of Student Council's Safety and Wellness Committee, said she had noticed this level of responsiveness from both University and Charlottesville police. The panel has met several times with law enforcement officials to talk about students' concerns for their own safety.

"They're not the enemy," she said, noting that these officials are "very interested in hearing feedback and will respond to it."

Moreover, Charlottesville police have recently been pulled from other locations across the city to join University police patrolling the Corner and the area just outside of Grounds.

For police officials, however, there are other factors to consider when responding to students' complaints about crimes. Because officials can instantaneously make a reported crime public to the University community through the e-mail alert system, the University Police Department has to make judgment calls about which crimes warrant announcement to more than 24,000 students. Angela Tabler, the University Police Department's Crime Prevention and Victim Witness Coordinator, said alerts are sent when "an immediate danger is present." Leonard Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, agreed, citing the Clery Act as a guide for what constitutes timely notice of a crime. Following such guidelines helps students and employees avoid potentially unsafe conditions in the community, he said.

But the relationship between the police and the public can become more complex in cases that involve sexual or hate violence.

"Some [crimes] are sensitive," Khatouri said. "That's the reason they don't always send everything out."

Khatouri said this was evidence that the police are not out to scare students. One way they ease the fear caused by repeated alerts is by pointing to crime statistics.

Statistical relief\n"The back-to-back reported assaults creates a sense of urgency," Longo said. But the statistics may indicate that this urgency is unfounded.

Charlottesville police officials use a program called CompStat to analyze changes in yearly crime statistics. According to the department's assessment, overall crime in Charlottesville is 32 percent lower today than it was five years ago. The city's sixth district, which includes Grounds and the Corner, saw a 27 percent drop in crime during the same period.

Identifying trends like these helps the police decide how to deploy departmental resources. The Charlottesville, University and Albemarle County police departments share an information system to collaborate and provide security to different areas. Tabler said University police officials have worked closely with the Charlottesville Police Department for more than five years. This kind of collaboration, Longo said, helps them combat crime in the most logical way possible.

Despite the long-term decrease in Charlottesville's crime, Tabler said there has recently been a slight increase from last year's level.

"We have had an interesting start to the school year," Sandridge said. "The most typical misdemeanor incidents involving students seem to be down. But we have had more reports of serious incidents than we typically have."

This increase, however, is difficult to untangle from public opinion and the actions, choices and attitudes of individuals. Both Sandridge and Longo said they believe this short-term increase in crime is closely related to the fact that students are now more willing than before to report crimes. The statistics, therefore, are not simply a measure of criminal activity but also of public response to crime.

This increase in reporting, Sandridge said, may partly be a result of faculty and student leaders asking students to report incidents regardless of their perceived seriousness.

"We are all very concerned by the number of incidents and by the proximity to the Grounds, although we are encouraged by the fact that students are reporting incidents more often and more quickly," Sandridge said in the latest safety announcement, which was issued Oct. 19.

One related consideration, however, can bring the relief brought by statistical trends into question. The increase in reporting draws attention to the fact that many crimes may occur under the radar - and as a result it may be impossible to know exactly how much criminal activity is occurring.

Such issues prompt an important question: If police have to struggle with a complex dynamic of crime data and public response to criminal activity, what actions can students take to minimize the possibility of becoming victims of crime?

What students can do\nLongo encouraged students to call for help:\n"If you don't feel comfortable about something you are experiencing or seeing, call the police. We want you to call," he said.

Other groups across Grounds have taken steps to improve safety. Khatouri said Student Council is taking measures to assist students, such as stocking the bookstore with pepper spray. She added that administrators have installed more Blue Light Phone safety stations across Grounds and are continuing to improve lighting in dimly lit areas. Tabler, meanwhile, noted the variety of University safety programs that exist, SafeRide and the University Transit System being among them. Third-year Nursing student Skyler Bivens praised the recent extension of SafeRide hours into the early morning, adding that before the changes, she often had to walk to do her clinical hours in the dark.

In the end, however, each individual is responsible for his own well-being.

"A lot of crimes are crimes of opportunity," Khatouri said. "Students need to take an initiative to empower themselves - to help themselves"


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