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July 1, 2009

Criminal justice 101

Crime surrounding U of L campus up from last year; police say communication key to combating problem

A University of Louisville student exits Ekstrom Library on the Third Street side and notices four young men approaching in the late-February snow. As the group passes, one man turns and slugs him in the face, prompting him to drop his backpack and sprint to safety at his fraternity house.

When the U of L junior returns to the crime scene, he finds the assailants have taken his backpack and $175 worth of books and school supplies. He files a police report, but his attackers are never caught.

“I was so nervous after that happened,” the student says during a recent interview, asking that he not be named. “I was always looking behind my back whenever I walked on campus from then on.”

It’s an understandable anxiety on U of L’s urban campus, particularly given some nearby areas have experienced a significant uptick in crime in recent months: The number of criminal incidents reported within about a one-mile radius of campus more than doubled in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the year before, according to statistics provided by Louisville Metro Police. From January through March of 2009, there were 35 criminal incidents reported near campus, compared with only 14 during that period the previous year. Most of those increases occurred in the categories of robberies, burglaries and thefts.

In explaining the recent rash of crime, Metro Police Lt. Joe Manning says the criminal population around campus is largely transient due to the proximity of Interstate 65 and homeless shelters in the area. He also says career criminals are attracted to college students as soft targets since they often leave expensive items out in the open to be taken.

For example, Manning says the Hill Street apartment complex, largely occupied by U of L students, is a hotbed for this kind of activity, with Metro Police often seeing as many as four thefts in a month. Many of those are simple cases of a laptop or iPod being left in a car with only a window to stand guard.

“College students are their own unique victims because they don’t have a lot of life experience,” Manning says. “It doesn’t take an expert thief to bust out a window and take a laptop.”

And although crime on campus has remained relatively steady, a few categories have spiked. Statistics from U of L’s Department of Public Safety reveal that from January through March of this year, police received 72 reports of lost or stolen property, compared with 53 reports during the same period in 2008.

But sometimes, students can do everything right and still become victims: On June 8, for example, a thief attempted to snatch a student’s purse as she was walking down Cardinal Boulevard. Two weeks earlier, a student was robbed while getting out of his car at the 2000 Block of Unity Place; the assailant threatened him, stole his cell phone and fled.

In the wake of these recent incidents, residents like Lindsey Gilpin are worried there aren’t enough officers around to protect her.

“It always scares me to walk around at night. I’ve actually started carrying mace in my backpack and constantly checking my surroundings when I’m walking from the parking lot to my building,” says the sophomore, who lives in a residence hall on campus. “I find myself wondering where all the security officers are when students are usually walking home from class and the library,” Gilpin adds. “They should make themselves more noticeable.”

U of L Assistant Chief of Police Kenny Brown says his department recently added three new officers through an increase in general funding. He also said a recent transportation grant has enabled campus police to update their communication center with more modern, compliant equipment.

Police officials with both Louisville Metro and U of L are quick to emphasize that communication between the two departments is strong. Metro Police compile a sector report each week documenting crime that occurs in the U of L area and share it with university police, who also have access to LMPD’s radio frequencies. It also is common for officers from both departments to collaborate in task force situations on and around campus, particularly at the beginning of a new school year in August, when U of L sees an upswing in crime. Those task forces monitor campus 24 hours a day, attempting to prevent car break-ins, robberies and other crimes that often occur at night.

Despite the insistence that both departments effectively share information, a recent U of L safety bulletin reveals there are exceptions. On May 8, Metro Police received a report that a U of L student had been mugged and beaten at Second and Lee streets. In turn, it reportedly took Metro Police three days to notify U of L police of the incident, at which time the campus department alerted students.

When asked to explain the delay, Lt. Manning says the standard for notifying U of L about crimes that occur near campus is not clear-cut. Explaining that it sometimes depends on “the nature of the offense,” Manning says a purse snatching, for example, might not warrant notification, whereas an apartment robbery would be definite grounds for communication.

It’s that gray area and resulting delay in notification that concerns students, including Rudy Spencer, former president of the university’s Student Government Association.

“I can understand a 24-hour lag if there is some investigative process to go through,” Spencer says, “but anything more than that is ridiculous.”