U of SC crime in line with other urban campuses

jmonk@thestate.comMarch 2, 2013 

  • Urban campus safety tips • Be aware of your surroundings and the people in them. If you walk listening to music, keep only one earbud in so you remain alert. • Pay attention to your intuition; don’t wait to try to get away from danger.

    Don’t walk alone at night and stay in lighted areas.

    •  Lock your car door when you leave it and while you are driving. Do not leave your belongings in your car when you exit. • Walk with purpose; check to the rear as you go. • Know where the nearest call boxes are and keep your cell phone handy. • Be wary of strangers approaching you. KINDS OF CRIME A tally of USC reported crime since move-in day Aug. 18 shows: • 11 on-campus robberies •  3 rapes • 3 indecent exposures • 24 on-campus burglaries • More than 30 vehicle thefts • More than 70 thefts from motor vehicles • 162 petty thefts Compiled by R. Darren Price from police reports and RAIDS Online, which collects crime data from all local law enforcement agencies

Interactive map of USC crime at bottom of story

University of South Carolina freshman Chris Haycook stood outside the Thomas Cooper Library and pondered just how safe from crime the university’s main campus is these days.

“I’ve heard about the recent robbery and rape, but I’ve seen a lot of police on patrol lately, so I feel a lot better about it,” said Haycook, 18, a freshman from Charleston who keeps up with campus alerts.

“I definitely don’t like going down by the Swearingen (engineering) facility at night, but aside from that, I feel OK and I always travel with friends, so it’s OK,” Haycook said.

Over on the Horseshoe, USC’s tree-lined quad, Zuzia Reszka, 19, a business major from New Jersey, said, “The shootings at Five Points are pretty scary, but generally on campus, things are pretty good. There’s more cops out at night.”

All in all, Reszka said, she feels safe but she doesn’t walk alone at night. “You shouldn’t do that anyway.”

These days, crime is on students’ minds.

Although the kinds of crimes USC experiences seem typical of an urban campus, a few highly publicized violent crimes against students in February — two armed robberies and a rape — have brought the idea of danger home. Moreover, Five Points — the university’s downtown neighboring bar district that’s a weekend watering hole for thousands of students — has been the scene of several highly publicized shooting incidents.

In two February armed robberies, which took place at night within walking distance of USC’s main Thomas Cooper library, the student victims reported that a car drew up beside them.

“Drop your wallets and walk away,” a gun-toting robber who jumped out of a car told two 19-year-old students, a male and a female, shortly before midnight Feb. 13 in the 800 block of Sumter Street. The students did as told, losing wallets, cash, credit cards and IDs. The robber got back in the car, which fled.

On Feb. 15, just after midnight in the 700 block of Pickens Street, a car pulled up beside a 19-year-old student, and a man hopped out with a gun. “Drop your wallet and turn and run,” the man said. A passenger in the car told him to drop his wallet or be shot. The student dropped his wallet, which held student IDs, cash, an S.C. driver’s license and credit cards. The vehicle fled.

Statistics, however, indicate there is no crime wave.

The 31,000-plus student campus — three miles long and more than a mile across with more than 100 buildings including dorms, parking garages and classroom space — continues to experience its usual steady parade of nonviolent crimes. In a three-day period last week, campus police reported three petty thefts, three trespassing incidents, one case of drunkenness, one vandalism incident, one case of harassment, one fake-ID charge and one drug violation. Petty theft is the most common crime — of things such as bicycles, money and GPS devices from cars. Vandals also smash parking meters for coins.

USC president Harris Pastides is well aware of the campus crime buzz.

Last week, for example, he met with a student advisory group for his regular monthly sit-down over pizza. “That (crime and safety) was a top agenda item of theirs,” Pastides said.

Among topics Pastides and the students discussed: how to increase crime prevention awareness among students, many of whom might come from small towns and might not be as street-savvy as young people from urban areas, where learning to watch for bad guys is as normal as looking both ways when crossing a street.

“Maybe because I grew up in a city, I took things like locking your car for granted,” Pastides said. The administration will be examining its crime prevention classes to refine their messages and exploring how to better make students understand that university police “are on their side.”

‘It’s about being engaged’

The university is going to have some crime, USC police chief Chris Wuchenich said.

“We are the eighth-largest city, population-wise, in South Carolina, with some 39,000 students, faculty and staff,” he said. “Violent crime on campus is rare. In 2011, we had 13 violent crimes. Last year, we had seven.”

Last year’s violent crime rate “computes out to about less than one-tenth of the national average violent crime rate per 100,000 people,” Wuchenich said.

Last month, USC added six new officers to the now-64-officer campus police force. Wuchenich hopes to add six more officers next year. Each officer’s salary, overtime, equipment and benefits cost about $70,000; the department’s budget is about $7.7 million.

Wuchenich has asked patrol officers to stop and talk to people on campus, both pedestrians and drivers, more than they have been. “It’s about being engaged.”

In recent years, the university has — partly in reaction to horrific events like the 2007 mass student murders at Virginia Tech and random shootings or assaults in Five Points — instituted numerous crime prevention measures and is studying how to make more of them more accessible to smartphone users.

Other ongoing measures include:

• A campus-wide surveillance camera system of “several hundred” security cameras, inside and outside of buildings, and increased safety lighting.

• A campus-wide network of “several hundred” call boxes, highly visible mini-stations where students can hit a button and be put in instant contact with a campus police dispatcher.

• An emergency alert system that includes mass emails, text messages, sirens, public address systems, social media and all televisions on the campus that would hopefully reach everyone in the university community simultaneously in the event of danger. Students, faculty members and employees also can sign up for crime email and cellphone text alerts.

• Internet-accessible daily campus crime logs and crime maps on USC’s Division of Public Safety website.

• Self-defense classes for females. Since last year, some 200 female students have taken the two- and four-hour classes that include instruction on when and how to fight back, how to avoid danger zones (walk with others and in lighted areas) and awareness of surroundings. In coming weeks, the department will offer eight more of these classes.

Student body president Kenny Tracy said, “The general feeling around campus is that people are very aware of the crimes happening.”

That heightened awareness has a good side, in that students are being more attentive to their surroundings and maybe thinking twice about walking alone at night, said Tracy, 22.

Students are responsive to security measures, he said. Since spring 2011, student government has paid some $58,000 a year to pay for free cab rides so students in Five Points can be picked up at the main fountain and delivered to any place within five miles on weekend nights from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Hundreds of students each month use the service.

“They just have a constant flow of taxis from the Five Points fountain,” Tracy said. “The ridership is tremendous.”

‘Students being there for students’

A new student safety program — which Tracy hopes will begin in April — will feature male and female student escorts to accompany students leaving Thomas Cooper and other libraries late at night back to dorms and parking garages. The main library is open 24 hours a day.

“That creates a group mentality that is less vulnerable to any sort of assaults or attack,” Tracy said. It also helps foster a culture of “students being there for students,” he said.

Perhaps because of pride or because they think it’s not worth the trouble, some students are resistant to calling on university resources for a ride or an escort, and they wind up walking alone late at night, Tracy said.

Tracy’s proposed library-specific escort service would complement three existing ways of campus night travel that students can avail themselves of.

One is an evening van service around campus offered by a service fraternity that operates from 8 p.m. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday. Another is a shuttle service that operates on a designated route around campus. Also, when the van is not available, a student can always call USC police for a ride.

USC criminal justice professor Geoff Alpert said USC police are good, but the thugs who prey on students can be pretty sophisticated, cruising the streets in cars, looking for lone students, especially women, whom they might perceive as “soft targets” who couldn’t fight back as easily as, say, a football player.

“I had two daughters go to school here who felt very comfortable, but I always told them in very uncertain terms to be very careful and make sure they aren’t soft targets,” Alpert said.

Wuchenich said robbers can strike quickly. “Bad guys aren’t stupid. The quicker they can do it, the more likely they are to get away with it.”

In recent weeks, Pastides said, he’s gotten calls from parents who have heard about the violent incidents. Pastides said quality academics and campus security go hand-in-hand, but security is vital. “We have got to have a safe campus — that’s my highest priority.”

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