Open Access Vs. Security

Living in an open society such as college and university environments carries costs. One cost is vulnerability to crime.

College and university campuses regularly experience many forms of crime: assaults, burglaries, property thefts, and sex offenses.

Then there is gun violence. Last September, lethal gunfire erupted at no fewer than three universities: the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Hospital in Baltimore, a fraternity party in a house adjacent to Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, and in the library of the University of Texas, Austin.

In recent years, many college and university police and security organizations have changed or at least refined the way they monitor and manage access to campuses and campus buildings in an effort to improve crime prevention.

Some campuses, such as George Mason University (GMU), are upgrading physical security technology and installing it in all campus buildings. Others — the University of Cincinnati, for one — are implementing bold new policies and procedures designed to elicit help from their campus communities in preventing campus crime and shootings.

New Technology at George Mason University

Located on four campuses in Northern Virginia, GMU serves 32,000 students, with 5,400 living on the campuses.

James L. McCarthy, director of physical security at GMU, recently embarked on an ambitious program to standardize and integrate physical security technology systems on GMU campuses. The goal is to improve building and campus security, improve response times, and ensure that police responders know what to expect at the scene of an event.

“Like many colleges and universities, we built up security technology systems department by department over the years, and none of the systems can talk to each other,” McCarthy said. “We want to standardize everything, add electronic card access control to every building, upgrade video surveillance and alarm systems, and integrate control of these systems in a security operations center.”

The video upgrade may include 700 or more cameras connected to an Internet Protocol (IP) server and huge storage array.

McCarthy plans to buy edge cameras, which contain chips that can record video if the server and storage array go down. “The edge cameras provide backup recording and will enable us to do without NVRs (network video recorders),” he said. “That will save money.”

In a conventional video system, NVRs record and store video for 16 or 32 cameras. A system with 1,000 cameras would need more than 30 of the larger capacity NVRs, which can cost $8,000 each… more than the premium for an edge camera.

The planned security operations center will run on open source software to ensure that it will work with all brands of gear. A customized graphical user interface (GUI) will enable security officers without computer training to learn the system quickly. The GUI screen will show a map of the campus with buildings. Officers will click on a building to call up floor plans showing the locations of cameras and controlled doors. Clicking on individual camera icons will call up video from the camera. Officers can use the GUI to pan, tilt, and zoom the camera to get a clear view.

Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedures that guide campus security and police officers are effective crime prevention tools. Consider a crime recently prevented on an unnamed college campus thanks to the implementation of a policy and procedure.

Campus security had set a policy that students entering a residence hall should use one of the two doors protected by access control and video. A patrolling officer noticed a person entering through another door. The officer couldn’t tell how the person gained entrance, just that he did.

Because the person’s entry failed to conform to the policy, the officer stopped and questioned him. It was a male student, who lived elsewhere, involved in a dispute with a former close female friend. He was carrying a weapon, and he intended to assault the woman.

Setting an effective policy, communicating it to campus police and security who then followed the policy, prevented a serious crime.

Policies, Procedures, and Campus Shooters

After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Gene Ferrara, associate vice president for administration and finance and the director of public safety and police chief at the University of Cincinnati, set out to deal with the rare but deadly problem of campus shootings.

He assembled a committee of campus police and security officers, plus faculty, staff, and students, and challenged them to come up with solutions.

Ferrara led the group through an analysis of the Virginia Tech shooting. “Virginia Tech was criticized for its response,” Ferrara said. “But that may be a matter of reflective bias, which means that when you know the outcome, it is difficult to evaluate a response made by people who did not know the outcome.”

The incident began with the murder of a female student and a resident advisor in a residence hall. “It looked like a domestic shooting,” Ferrara said. “How could you deduce that there would be a mass killing an hour and a half later? Without ignoring the importance of response planning and training, we decided to think about ways to prevent these kinds of shootings.”

Looking for solutions, the committee examined a U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education study called “The Safe School Initiative,” which analyzed shootings at universities and K–12 schools.

Among the study’s findings: Before a shooting, most attackers have behaved in ways that attracted the attention of others and indicated a need for help.

The committee built a set of procedures around that finding and set a new University program, Prevention Through Intervention, into motion.

The program has set up training to enable students, faculty, and staff to identify behaviors that seem out of the ordinary and consistent with emotional stress. Students are urged to report those behaviors to a faculty or staff member.

The plan uses a three-tiered system to address reports.

First comes counseling from a faculty or staff member who observed the distressed behavior or heard about it through a student report. The University counseling center now has a program to teach faculty and staff how to approach a person who appears troubled.

A number of cases in the past two years have shown that individuals often need nothing more than a sympathetic ear.

When that first level of counseling proves ineffective, however, a case goes before a committee of professional counselors, resident advisors, police, and security officers.

If professional counseling can’t resolve the case, it goes to a third tier, a threat assessment team, composed of Ferrara, a risk management attorney, a student affairs judicial officer, and campus directors of labor relations, counseling, and health services. The team meets when necessary about new cases and quarterly to review existing cases.

“After two years, two cases have moved through the three tiers,” Ferrara said, “from coaching by a faculty member through a recommendation by the threat assessment team to use a state statute allowing police officers to take a person to a hospital for an evaluation.”

One of the two entered a treatment program. The other was released.

Has the program prevented shootings? No one can know, of course. No one can say that what didn’t happen would have. Still, the program helps troubled individuals. If, along the way, it prevents a shooting or even less serious crime and no one knows about it, what would be the harm?


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