Thursday, January 31, 2008

Safety First

Safety First
By Editorial Board

Though Morningside Heights is in one of the safest precincts in Manhattan, serious crimes do occur near campus. Despite a recent string of robberies at local businesses, muggings outside of two dormitories, and a fatal shooting at Radio Perfecto last year, Columbia students have received only sporadic information about these crimes. Although the Department of Public Safety successfully maintains a secure environment for the Columbia community, there needs to be a more effective system by which students are notified of crime in the area.

Information about criminal incidents is published on the Public Safety Web site, but it is not properly disseminated. Under the Clery Act of 1990, the University must notify the community promptly about all crimes that present a threat to students’ security. At Columbia, this role has been delegated to Public Safety, yet it remains unclear where Public Safety and the administration draw the line on notifying students about Clery crimes, which include criminal homicide, forcible sexual offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and arson. Though the Clery Act requires that the specified crimes be kept in a public log, students are only actively notified by Public Safety about a small number of violations. According to Associate Vice President for Public Safety James McShane, these “blast e-mails”—by which the entire Columbia community has been notified of specific crimes—have been purely experimental. In general, administrators are responsible for informing students about crimes by forwarding messages sent by the Department of Public Safety.

This system is problematic because crime alerts go through several middlemen before reaching students. Though Public Safety reports all Clery crimes to the administration, the entire student body is not consistently notified. Students in different schools and dorms often receive varying degrees of information, leaving students blind to the reality of crime around campus. Many students were unaware of the muggings that took place outside the Woodbridge and Schapiro dormitories last semester because they did not receive notifications from the administration or see the small signs posted by Public Safety in some buildings. Students are more vulnerable when they are ignorant of the true number and nature of security threats.

To keep Columbia’s students and employees as safe as possible, a change in notification policy must be implemented. First, in conjunction with the administration, Public Safety should designate certain types of crimes as offenses that require the entire student body to be notified.
Dangerous Clery crimes should be reported to students and faculty whether or not Public Safety thinks a repeat offense is likely. Most importantly, notification about such crimes should be organized and executed entirely by Public Safety rather than through administrative middlemen. Through the blast e-mail system, a single alert about relevant incidents will reach all students and employees.

Though such a policy may require expanding the staff and scope of the Public Safety office, these changes will most effectively keep students alert and up-to-date on security threats in Morningside Heights. Columbia must make it a priority to keep its students safe.

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