Crime, not cold, is driving University of Minnesota students indoors these days.
“We no longer feel safe walking outside,” student Sara Gottlieb said Tuesday at a special Senate hearing in the wake of a spate of nerve-jangling reports about muggings, armed robberies and sexual assaults on or near the university’s Minneapolis campus.
On paper, officials said, campus crime is no worse this year than previously. But those statistics are small consolation on a campus where everyone seems to know someone affected by the recent crimes. Sunday brought the area’s 28th reported robbery attempt of the year — a man brandishing a gun at a 23-year-old woman as she was scraping ice off her car windshield in the middle of the afternoon.
Universities have stepped up outreach efforts — urging students to take common-sense precautions such as walking in groups and keeping expensive cellphones and electronics out of sight. The university offers rides and escorts, operates a campuswide alert system and is working to install more crime deterrents like cameras, brighter lighting and emergency call boxes.
Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Eddie Frizell told the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee that department’s 2nd Precinct focuses 60 percent of its resources on neighborhoods surrounding the campus, Dinkytown and Marcy-Holmes. Every fall, when new students arrive, police make an extra effort to prepare students for the risks of an urban campus. The city has bike patrols, beat patrols and plainclothes officers in the area, watching for trouble.
The problem, Frizell said, is that when police target one neighborhood, crime simply “bubbles out” somewhere else. Last weekend police turned out in force in one campus neighborhood, he said. Reported crime dropped by nearly a third in that area. But elsewhere, outside the targeted zone, was where the armed man confronted the woman in the middle of the day.
“The safety of students, faculty and staff remains the highest priority at the U,” said Pamela Wheelock, vice president of university services at the University of Minnesota. “We deeply share the public’s concern about safety and are seeking continued collaboration with our Minneapolis and other public safety partners.”
But students who testified before the panel said they feel vulnerable — no matter what precautions they take. They can hide their phones and laptops, but criminals will assume they carry one anyway. They can walk in groups, but armed robbers near campus have attacked groups as well as individuals.
“Hiding our phones is not enough … Walking in groups is not enough,” said Gottlieb, who lives blocks from a street corner where a student was held up at gunpoint last Sunday afternoon. “Carrying pepper spray is not enough, as a good friend of ours this weekend had her pepper spray turned against her as she was walking home.”
So far this semester, four serious crimes have happened within blocks of student Zack Shartiag’s home in Dinkytown. Security worries are doing more than the subzero weather to drive down attendance at campus events, he said.
“I’ve been changing my routes, I’ve been staying inside,” he said.
University President Eric Kaler, in a newsletter e-mailed to parents of U students, said addressing campus crime was his “Number One priority,” and that he was encouraged legislators were taking a serious look at the issue.
“I’m the father of two sons who, just a few years ago, lived on and near their own college campuses,” Kaler said in the e-mail. So, I completely understand and share your concern and that of your students about safety. We’re working hard every day to ensure a safe and secure campus.”
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who led Thursday’s three-hour informational hearing, said the concerns were what prompted her to look into what campuses are doing about the crime spike and what the Legislature might do to help.
“We are going to nip this,” Bonoff said. “The university’s a jewel, and we are not going to lose our students. We’re going to keep you safe.”