Campus Safety Update: Police Chief Rhonda Harris Speaks Out
After a number of high profile crimes and violent acts last semester, one question is paramount in the minds of Old Dominion University students and their parents: what is ODU doing to make the campus safer?
According to ODU Police Chief Rhonda Harris, the issue is being addressed at multiple levels, and a number of improvements are currently in the works. “We are trying to be proactive. We are addressing the problem on a broad scale, but we’re also looking at it building by building,” Harris said.
According to Clery Act Reports, ODU’s crime levels are actually roughly median among the United States urban college campuses. The numbers of violent crimes committed each semester have actually fallen since Harris took over the department in 2012. She attributes this to a change in policing style on campus.
“We’ve adopted a problem-solving strategy. We started trying to solve the real problems, rather than surface issues,” Harris said.
The ODU Police Department invested in new training and technology for their detective bureau. This led to better arrests on scene, and a much lower frequency of repeat offenses.
Most violent crimes, on and around campus, stem from parties. ODU Police launched two new strategies to address this problem last semester.
First, police have been going undercover to parties in order to identify problematic activities and practices. Second, students, especially Greek and athletic organizations, are being encouraged to register parties, have strict guest lists and have someone controlling access at the door.
“The results are currently sporadic, but we’re still training and getting the word out,” Harris said. She emphasized that their goal is not to stop parties. Instead they are trying to educate students about safety issues and how party dynamics can lead to violence.
Nicole Kiger, director of the office of Leadership and Student Involvement, has been instrumental in helping to reach the students.
“With social media advertisement, the party dynamic changes,” Harris said. “You have large groups of people with nothing in common. Individuals are coming to these parties from other campuses, other cities.”
Factor in impaired decision-making processes, and minor disagreements can turn volatile.
Parties are also breeding grounds for burglaries and larcenies, which is statistically the biggest crime problem facing ODU. While partying, students are less observant, their possessions are on display and their homes are filled with strangers. They are vulnerable.
“People take advantage of opportunities,” Harris said. “The iPhone is the most stolen item in the country right now, because it’s easy to take, easy to sell and valuable.”
Burglaries and larcenies are also an issue in residence halls and other campus buildings. To address this, ODU has made two simple changes to residence halls that they expect to have a large impact: burglary resistant screens on windows, and dorm-room doors that automatically lock when they close.
“We’re going to see the numbers of thefts drop a lot,” Harris said.
In addition, ODU is examining the campus building by building to determine trends and patterns. “The student recreation center had a problem with thefts last semester,” Harris said.
“We improved admission procedures, installed more lockers for students to store their belongings and supplemented them with more security cameras.”
The rec center is not the only place on campus with new security cameras. While ODU currently has between 800 and 900 cameras on campus, they are working hard to install a couple hundred more over the summer. “We’ll be looking at the other side of 1,000 by fall,” Harris said.
“The administration has been very supportive in terms of technology,” Harris said.
In addition to installing new cameras, ODU is also updating their existing surveillance technology. “We’re increasing the resolution on the cameras we have now, as well as adding low-light upgrades,” Harris said. “The residence halls will have more live-feed cameras, to help control access to side doors. We also have special purpose cameras that we can temporarily install to monitor specific areas when we observe patterns of concern.”
The ODU Police Department is currently evaluating predictive analysis systems, similar to the CompStat program, in order to better identify and respond to trends in criminal activities. They are also in the process of redesigning their communications system in order to streamline their practices and increase their capabilities.
Finally, the ODU Police Department has engaged in broad-scale training in order to better equip them to handle incidents. “We’ve partnered with the division of criminal justice to improve training, especially in civil-rights procedures, decision making and threat assessment. We’re also training to improve our dispatch process and increase responsiveness,” Harris said.
Harris believes the real problem on campus is a problem of perception. Within the administration, meetings are being held, talks are happening and measures are being taken. The numbers of violent crimes are down, and plans are being executed to reduce the numbers of burglaries and larcenies. Unfortunately, that information is not filtering down to the students, while widespread media reports of violent incidents.
Harris wants to start communicating directly to the students exactly what progress ODU is making to improve safety and reduce crime. “We are trying to be proactive. We are holding our staff accountable. We are trying to increase our transparency. I want students and parents to know that there is nothing the ODU Police Department is not working on,” she said.
By David Thornton
Mace & Crown