Commentary: A Perspective on Trends in Public Safety
During the past semester, the issue of public safety was on the collective mind of the campus community. The tragic death of Travis Williams and several other high-profile assaults remind us of the dangers present here in Chico. Criminal assaults on campus and in the City of Chico are a significant concern. The Chico Police Department, the University Police Department (UPD), and the University’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) are just three of the groups seeking solutions to local public safety issues.
Public safety, which can be defined as both freedom from crime and freedom from the fear of crime, is an important component in anyone’s quality of life. Here at CSU, Chico, we enjoy relatively high levels of public safety, but there is always room for improvement. A quick look at recent trends of assaults in the areas of Chico where the majority of students live provides some helpful context.
The five-year trend data indicates an increase in both the number of assault incidents and the number of assault victims (see Table 1). However, the past two years show significant decreases from the high numbers of assaults and victims in 2003 (since 2003, assault incidents have declined by 17.96 percent, and the number of victims has declined by 17.78 percent).
Recent media coverage of assaults in Chico paid little attention to these decreases, in some instances for good reason. No percentage decrease in crime will bring back Travis Williams. What we can take from these numbers is that the serious problem of assaults can be addressed by public safety professionals and the community as a whole. Many assaults are a byproduct of alcohol/drug use, and the university community is vigorously addressing substance abuse. Looking at the more recent trends in assaults (2003 to 2005), we see that violence in our community can decrease. Of course, assaults are only one of the myriad public safety problems facing our community.
This spring, the PSAC is planning a first-ever Moonlight Safety Walk to involve all of us in increased public safety. This walk, modeled on the 20-year-old practice at California State University, Northridge, brings members of the campus community together for an evening to walk the campus while looking for hazards and safety issues. CSU, Northridge’s Police Chief and director of Physical Plant Management enthusiastically provided information from their experiences with Moonlight Walks, and we invite you to participate in Chico State’s version. The event is in the planning process, and we will announce details later this semester.
The Moonlight Walk highlights the concept that the generation of public safety on our campus is a shared responsibility. Some of the people most identifiable with that mission are the officers of the UPD. Sometimes the role and powers of the UPD are misunderstood. All the sworn personnel in the department are fully empowered peace officers and receive the same training that other law enforcement officers in California receive through the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). POST’s 664 hours of basic training prepare the officers for the challenge of policing our campus community.
One of the misconceptions about the UPD is that they are merely “key jinglers” who lock doors in the evening and open the doors for forgetful faculty who’ve locked their keys in their office. While the department does perform these essential security tasks, they are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
UPD currently includes 15 sworn officers, including Chief of Police Leslie Deniz, a lieutenant, five sergeants, and eight officers. These sworn members investigate crimes, make arrests, take official reports, and provide multiple patrol services including bike and foot patrol. In addition, the nature of a campus community provides opportunities for members of the department to serve the educational mission of the University, by participating on task forces or giving guest lectures.
The department also employs community service officers (CSOs) to assist the officers. This can lead to some confusion, because, while they receive pertinent training, the CSOs are not peace officers, but are student assistants employed by the UPD. You may see them directing traffic after an on-campus event, writing parking tickets, or driving the Campus Connections shuttle. When they perform such duties, they allow sworn officers to engage in other public safety activities. Currently, the department has eight CSOs on staff.
The UPD also relies on the efforts of 12 civilians, as both support staff and as dispatchers. The UPD office is staffed around the clock, and it is an important information resource. In the evenings and on weekends, countless customers enter UPD to report crimes or ask for information.
The PSAC meets on a monthly basis to consider trends in public safety, to discuss potential policy changes, and to serve as a liaison between the campus and the UPD. As the chair of this committee, I welcome any comments or questions about public safety and our campus community.
Table 1: Assaults in Traditional Student Residential Areas of Chico, 2001-2005*
* 1) Robert Woodward, Crime Analyst for the Chico Police Department, supplied the data used to construct Table 1. 2) Each assault incident includes at least one victim, but may include more.
Table 2: Campus Assault Reports, 2001-2005
—by Matthew Thomas, Political Science, Chair of Public Safety Advisory Committee