Crime stats drop at Chicago universities

Outside the Einstein Bros. Bagels at the University of Chicago's student center, a crime alert is posted on a bulletin board.

"Between 1:30 and 1:45 a.m., Friday, February 8, on 57th Street between Kimbark and Kenwood Avenues, a man was confronted by another man who placed a knife to the victim's throat, demanded his valuables..."

University of Chicago junior Tori Neal shrugged. "I feel like we hear about it every couple weeks or so," she said.

In the past few years, schools in Chicago have been tightening their off-campus security efforts to limit the number of robberies, thefts and murders.

Crime statistics have gone down. According to the South East Chicago Commission, total crime decreased by 26 percent between 2002 and 2006.

But the numbers are still too high for some students and school officials in the area.

In 2006, there were 113 burglaries in the blocks around Northwestern University, 695 thefts in UChicago's Hyde Park and four murders in Rogers Park bordering Loyola, according to police reports.

Colleges are required by the Jeanne Clery Act to publish crime statistics for their campuses and the areas directly adjacent to campus, but this information does not cover areas blocks from campus where many students may live.

It would be the equivalent of NU leaving out students who live on Ridge Avenue and Davis Street.

As a result, the numbers can seem unusually low, said Bernard Ward, director of campus safety at Loyola University in Rogers Park. This is especially true when students at colleges report living as many as 20 minutes away from campus.

For instance, while NU's 2006 report says that there was a single burglary off-campus in Evanston for 2006, a tabulation of police reports of the surrounding police beats shows a figure of 113. For schools like Loyola and UChicago, recent crime figures can be too expansive - including large areas where students do not live - or too limiting.

"The numbers look skewed, but they're not," Ward said.

Universities often perform a balancing act between providing appropriate security while maintaining a good image for prospective students.

"Our job is to understand that students have a realistic understanding of what they're surroundings are so that they're prepared for the realities of everyday life," said Summur Roberts, Loyola's community relations program coordinator. This school year, Loyola and NU started collecting cell phone numbers so administrators can contact students in the event of a school shooting like those at Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois University, Roberts said. But the school would probably not use such a system in the event of an off-campus shooting or rape, she said.

"You only want to send it out when it's needed to save peoples' lives," she said.

University officials place limitations on when they use such services to keep students in touch with the reality of their surroundings without desensitizing them, or unnecessarily scaring them, Roberts said.

Officials also find themselves tussling with local authorities.

NU just finished a two-month battle with Evanston residents over the placement of blue light phones in off-campus neighborhoods in December. The phones give students an instant 911 call in case of an emergency.

The phones were an issues for residents in Evanston's Historic District, just west of the NU campus.

"Evanston does like to have its neighborhood lighting muted as part of the ambiance in the neighborhood," said Cmdr. James Elliot, of the Evanston police. "It probably brings out a nicer atmosphere in the neighborhoods, but in terms of safety it does cause some problems."

In the meantime, local universities continue to brainstorm initiatives to keep local crime low and students' fears at ease.

Squad cars follow lone students walking alone at night in UChicago's Umbrella service, while four shuttle routes circle the major student apartment areas.

NU's SafeRide and Loyola's 8-Ride programs serve as free cab rides to and from campus, and Loyola has just opened an off-campus safety outpost at the Granville Red Line stop.

"It's never okay to be vulnerable," Roberts said.

Students believe the measures work, but preventing crime is largely an individual effort.

"I've always made it a policy not to leave my house at 1:30 in the morning," said UChicago junior Smitha Nagaraja. "As long as you play it safe, I don't think it's a legitimate risk all of the time."

And if students do encounter trouble, their immediate reaction should be to call the police, Elliot said.

"We're not asking people to put themselves in danger by challenging people," he said. "But if something doesn't feel right to you, go by your gut."

(C) 2008 Daily Northwestern via U-WIRE