Increasing Union Safety at Ole Miss

Several fights and disturbances in the Ole Miss Union at University-based University of Mississippi in the spring of 1998 caused the Union staff and the Department of Police and Campus Safety to look closely at the situation. "The fights seemed to be isolated, unrelated events," says Doug Stuart, assistant director of the Union. "One occurred in the daytime; the others were at night as parties were closing down."

Although crimes and fights were rare in or around the Union, there appeared to be a perception among some patrons that the building was not as safe as it once had been. That perception was confirmed in early May 1998, when a survey supervised by Stuart indicated that students were somewhat more satisfied with their general feelings of safety on campus than they were with their safety in the Union. The staffs of the Union and the University Police Department set out to change those perceptions.

It Worked in the Dorms

"We already had success in the residence halls with police substations," says Calvin Sellers, captain of patrol. "The consensus was that a police substation might be the answer to the perceived security problem in the Union."

There was an initial concern, however, that a police substation in the Union might send the wrong signals to the community, and that the perception of lack of safety might be strengthened. "We discussed the same concern when we started our residence hall substation program. But our increased police visibility didn’t reflect high crime rates in the residence halls. It was just an aggressive, proactive way to adjust perceptions while preventing crime," explains Chief Mike Stewart. "It worked in the residence halls: We were accepted there immediately. We thought the same thing would happen in the Union."

The staffs of the Union and the Police Department worked quickly to put a plan in place and, with the help of the physical plant department, the Union Police Substation became a reality, opening the last week of June 1998. It is believed to be the only police substation in a college union in the country.

Adding Visibility

The Ole Miss Union opened in 1976, with dark tile floors and dark wood paneling on the walls. The building had a somewhat dark and foreboding look, especially at night, which was only partially alleviated by improved lighting. The facility hosts more than 4,000 meetings each year and sees an average of 14,500 people entering and leaving per day. The building contains four ATMs, a post office, campus dining facilities, the bookstore, the Central Ticket Office, and a number of administrative offices and student organizations. Approximately 20 dances are held in the building each semester, drawing both students and nonstudents.

The eight-ft. by 12-ft. substation is located on the first floor in a high-traffic area between two entrances. It is visible from both inside the building and from the parking lot, and it has glass walls and a Plexiglas ceiling. The $8,000 construction cost of the substation was borne by the Union budget.

The substation is furnished with a computer connected to the police and university networks. The computer and other furnishings were donated by the University Counseling Center.

The substation is the office of Crime Prevention Coordinator Officer Thelma Curry, although other officers are encouraged to use it at night to write reports, interview people or just eat dinner or take breaks.

"Visibility is the key to success with a substation," says Stewart, "particularly in the Union and particularly late at night. The substation is well lit and easily identified with the police, and that alone acts as a crime deterrent and enhances feelings of safety. The fact that police officers are in and out at all hours of the night just adds to a positive perception of safety and security."

Eldridge Littlejohn, the post office postmaster, agrees: "The opening of the substation has been a valuable addition to the Union. We have not experienced any vandalism or thefts this semester."

Effective Solution

Before implementing the substation, the Union staff and the university police developed five goals they wanted to achieve:

1. make the Union safe and secure, and ensure the perception of safety and security;

2. improve satisfaction with safety and security efforts in the Union;

3. exceed the safety and security expectations of students, parents, faculty, staff and visitors;

4. maintain a continuing relationship for problem solving in the Union in the future; and

5. improve the quality of life on campus.

"There is no doubt that the Union substation has helped us achieve our goals with regard to safety and security," says Stuart. He should know, having compared the data from the 1998 survey with information generated in April 1999. Personal safety satisfaction levels increased both in the Union and on campus from spring 1998 to spring 1999. "But the largest increase was in the Union: from 3.99 to 4.38 on a five-point scale. We think that’s significant," he says. "Even more impressive is the fact that Union patrons now feel somewhat safer in the Union than they do on campus."

Perhaps the best and most telling testimony concerning the effectiveness of the substation comes from the students themselves. One student’s comment: "It’s great coming into the building to see the office and the officers out and about. It has made me more likely to use the Union at night."

The police substation in the Ole Miss Union arose from common goals and efforts of individuals who want the Union to be safe and for patrons to feel safe. The project’s success is best summed up by an Ole Miss coed: "This should have been done three years ago when I was a freshman."

Eldrid Hodge is associate director of the Department of Police and Campus Safety at the University of Mississippi in University. David Elmore retired as director of the Ole Miss Union in June.

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