Security Vs. Safety

Add it to the list of confusing issues we may never resolve in our lifetimes: Is the plural of “mouse” still “mice” when you’re talking about computer equipment? How does a third cousin become twice removed? And which campus police responsibilities fall under the safety and security categories?

Defining the Problems

Take note: Everyone relies on a slightly different understanding of security and safety. The American Heritage Dictionary -- a source most expect to clarify such discussions -- only muddies the water. Security, it claims, is freedom from risk or danger; anything that gives or assures safety. Safety, on the other hand, means freedom from danger, risk or injury; any of various devices designed to prevent accident.

But, circular definitions notwithstanding, university and campus policing departments’ daily responsibilities are subject to interpretation. So the people responsible for safety and security have been making their own distinctions.

Security, assures Daniel J. Benny, MA, CPP, director of safety and security at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania, is the act of protecting people and physical property against threats such as theft, criminal activity, assault, rapes and violence in the workplace. The term covers everything from uniformed security or campus police officers to intrusion detection systems, card access keys, lighting, vehicle patrols and escorts at his 24,000-student commuter campus. He considers safety the act of protecting individuals and property from fire and chemical hazards, and handling emergencies such as gas leaks, power outages, snowstorms and earthquakes.

Richard Lee, crime prevention and community services officer at the University of Massachusetts, says security generally refers to physical, concrete steps of protection: locking buildings, for instance. He contrasts that with the more encompassing idea of public safety, which deals with law enforcement, fire safety and environmental health on his 12,000-student campus. “That pretty much sums it up,” he notes.

But when you mosey out to University of California-Davis to speak with Captain Michael Corkery, you’ll find yet another spin on the terms. Security in his department essentially means protecting property, research and physical assets of the six-mile campus’s approximately 25,000 students -- safety translates to protecting human life.

In the end, most campus police departments ditch the semantics in favor of a loss prevention business model, which Benny knows works after spending the first part of his career in private industry. No matter the terminology, the priorities are protecting people first, then property and information. “With that concept, you automatically combine issues. Everything from the way you write policies and procedures to how you train the staff and function as a department becomes intertwined,” he points out. Indeed, law enforcement departments around the country have embraced this sentiment, calling it “community policing.”

The combination makes tremendous sense on campuses, as police officers often strive for a nontraditional education role among the students. “Most 18-year-old freshmen are away from home for the first time so they’re also learning how to live,” Corkery says. “We consider ourselves professionals trained and experienced to help people get through some of those potentially difficult times.” Indeed, this demographic make-up means campuses aren’t sanctuaries; alcohol-related incidents, drug use, thefts, assault, unwanted sexual advances and vandalism rank among the common reports.

So the real value in this safety/security definition-go-round for Lee lies in realizing that, as a resource center, UMass’s campus law enforcement needs to broaden its services to embrace everything from fingerprinting for government job applications to jumping car batteries. The reward for such accessibility, in his opinion, is demonstrated by the case of the sexually assaulted student who felt comfortable enough with the system to volunteer distressing details and allow campus officers to hold her hand through the court system to nail the perpetrator.

“Combining safety and security under one department makes our officers more well-rounded,” notes UC-Davis’s Corkery. Not to mention the time savings it promotes. After all, patrol officers take an initial burglary report, so while they are looking at how the illegal entry occurred, they also can conduct an inspection and offer improvement suggestions. “Frankly, I don’t know that it’s necessary for the public to distinguish between safety and security,” he says. “It boils down to a way to simplify internal communication.”

And with that attitude, campus law enforcement -- commonly referred to as public safety officers to capitalize on the friendly connotation -- have found ways to squeeze a wealth of cost savings from the gray area between definitions.

Security Tips

For clarity, let’s assume security applies to protecting people by addressing how we guard their material things and surroundings. Most of the crime statistics at Benny’s HACC territory stem from this category.

Card access security to campus buildings ranks at the top of Lee’s list of tricks. “Lose a key and you need to rekey the entire building. With card access via a computer you merely punch that card out via computer when it’s lost,” he explains. Second, although campuses stamp keys with “Do Not Duplicate,” students always manage to slip copies to their buddies -- and create a security tracking nightmare. Card access provides the all-important entry record.

American University’s Colleen Carson, director of public safety at that Washington, DC, campus, relies on nearly 500 different alarm points in dorms and classroom labs to track unauthorized entries of any type. “In the old days, students propped open the fire exits to save time sneaking in friends after the front desk closed,” she says. “Obviously we can’t secure a residence hall if we don’t know five doors have pizza boxes jammed in them.”

In most cases, campus police departments employ a handful of dedicated security officers to stand guard at sensitive junctures and monitor state-of-the-art cameras. However, progressive thinkers who want to economize on salaries cross-train their patrol officers as reliable eyes and ears. Award-winners creatively involve volunteers in this battle. Take Carson’s approach: She finagled getting American’s transportation operations under her umbrella. Now the shuttle bus drivers, who cover the territory from the city’s subway stops to all university property every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., receive professional instruction on how to spot trouble. Their radios allow them to alert officers in seconds.

Carson also frees full-time officers to deal with larger public safety issues by hiring up to 20 students as parking lot ticket writers. She has effectively increased her observers on the street in the bargain and provided inexpensive student ambassadors whose presence shouts security to their peers.

UC-Davis conducts annual walks across the campus with Corkery, students, groundskeepers, and facilities and housing representatives. The team’s mission is to spy out ineffective light bulbs, overgrown bushes, broken sidewalks -- anything that could increase criminal activity down the line. Installing more emergency telephones, with one-button access to the 911 system, ranks next on Corkery’s to-do list. The advantages motivating him include the fact that these blue-lighted help stations dial his department directly. Emergency cell phones in California automatically route to highway patrol dispatchers -- a waste of valuable time. (The university distributes literature urging people on its grounds to dial the seven-digit police number if they use a mobile phone for reports.)

Safety Hints

To simplify matters, let’s call safety protecting people directly from threatening situations with other human beings. Some purists, of course, break it into two smaller parts: life safety (read: individual medical emergencies or personal accidents requiring CPR and first aid procedures) and public safety (read: crime reaction).

Lee best addresses this angle by thinking large and out of the box. “Effective public safety is more of a preventive philosophy,” he says. “It shows more concern for the whole environment rather than just the law enforcement part.” Thus his UMass staff positions itself as a resource for neighborhood crime watches and offers a bicycle patrol squad for its approachability. At Harrisburg, Benny asks his officers to hold training workshops with students on hot topics like responsible drinking and date rape.

“In the corporate world they say that, if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Lee notes. “We are trying very hard to become part of the solution by having the community become involved with us rather that creating ‘us’ and ‘them’ entities.”

Corkery’s officers adopt buildings -- and, more importantly, the human communities inside them -- along their beats. They attend faculty meetings, join employee assistance committees and conduct entertaining seminars for students. “Many times people have an issue or know about a problem but don’t want to bother the cops,” he says. “But when they develop a personal relationship with an officer, they feel more comfortable about bringing up ‘trivial’ things.”

It helped one woman whose spouse placed unpleasant phone calls to her during their break-up. Her supervisor on campus contacted his officer pal to ask for advice. Eventually the officer contacted the husband to advise him he stood on the edge of committing a crime, and the incident defused. Corkery estimates his public safety strategy has prevented as many as 30 physically threatening situations.

The pay-off is tremendous. Overall, the number of crime incidents at UMass decreased 55 percent from 1994 to 1998, according to Lee’s records. Benny has witnessed a 10 percent decline in each of the five years he’s occupied his administrative chair. Carson enjoys a 33 percent decrease this decade.

“And consider physical replacement costs, loss of revenue, emotional distress, court costs and wrongful death lawsuits for starters,” Corkery points out. “It’s difficult to put a dollar figure on something you prevented from happening.”

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