Never too cautious

The complexity of controlling crime on an urban campus

A notable trend has appeared in Portland State’s Campus Public Safety Office crime reports: From 2016 to 2017, the numbers of reported car break-ins, bike thefts and other crimes skyrocketed and some 2018 statistics appear to be heading toward a similar outcome. This has forced some students to question their safety and the safety of their belongings on campus.

One PSU student, who asked to remain unnamed, has experienced this uptick in crime personally. She started using Parking Structure 3, located several blocks west of the main academic buildings surrounding the Park Blocks, in 2013. “I’d notice broken windows sometimes but I didn’t worry too much because it wasn’t that often,” she said. “This started to change in 2015.”

The student noticed an increase in car break-ins in her Southeast Portland neighborhood around the time more broken glass began to appear where she parked on campus. In 2017, she said she also began to experience verbal harassment.

Then, one afternoon during summer term 2017, a man she didn’t know attempted to kiss her outside Parking Structure 3. She reported the incident to someone in the CPSO office. “I asked [the CPSO employee] if there were any cameras at the parking structure and she said no,” the student said. “She explained there was also high theft in the area, but [CPSO] couldn’t do anything about it.”

Not long after that, her car window stopped working, leaving her no choice but to empty out her car and hope for the best while it sat in Parking Structure 3 with the window rolled down. When she returned after class, she realized someone had been inside her car. “As I drove down the floors towards the exit of the garage,” the student said, “I saw a man looking through different car windows. His arms were full of random stuff. He noticed me and ran for the exit.”

According to data from the CPSO daily crime log, the number of reported car break-ins and car prowls jumped from 93 in 2016 to 157 last year. This increase follows an overall uptick in car thefts in Portland, as reported in 2017 by Willamette Week. While crime has been on the decline in most categories since 2008, the article states, “Portland now ranks third among the nation’s major cities for car thefts per capita, outpaced only by Detroit and Baltimore.”

Portland now ranks third among the nation’s major cities for car thefts per capita, outpaced only by Detroit and Baltimore. -WW

According to CPSO’s 2017 Annual Campus Security Report, 17 cars were reported stolen on campus and on public property, compared to zero in 2015 and 2014.

Locking bikes up can only do so much

In addition to the rise in vehicle break-ins and car thefts, bike thefts and break-ins to bike storage areas have increased as well.

Reported bike thefts and seizures of bikes suspected stolen rose from 23 in 2016 to approximately 49 in 2017. PSU’s Bike Hub provides indoor bike garages for students, and while the garages require a student ID for access, this doesn’t always provide enough security. Last year, 10 incomplete bike frames were stolen when someone broke into one of Bike Hub’s storage cages, in addition to at least two other break-ins in 2017.

A representative from Bike Hub said thieves occasionally enter behind students, bypassing the security system, and that they most often see parts being stolen off bikes over time, particularly from bikes stored on campus for an extended period. Ideally, according to the representative, the Hub would like to implement more frequent security patrols, but a lack of resources prevents that. Bike parking permits currently cost PSU community members $15 per quarter.

Public indecency, invasion of privacy, sexual crime on the rise

In March 2018, the same student who was harassed outside Parking Structure 3 was followed by a stranger for over an hour through three floors of the PSU Branford Price Millar Library. She eventually found a hidden space where she attempted to study for almost an hour, but she said it seemed the man was still looking for her. “I ended up leaving,” she said. “I ran down the steps from the fifth floor when I could see his back was turned, [but] I didn’t report it because I felt like my last report didn’t matter.”  

Already this year, there have been five reported instances of public indecency and invasion of privacy, compared to the nine total reported in 2017. These often involve stalking behavior, indecent exposure and public masturbation.

According to Interim Dean of Millar Library Tom Bielavitz, these sorts of activities do happen in the library but are unusual. “Our most common problems are routine thefts,” Bielavitz said. “Surprisingly, people leave their belongings such as laptops and backpacks unattended, and others take advantage of that.”

He added that the library has made recent efforts to improve security, including installing additional security cameras, requiring student ID cards for entrance to the library after 9 p.m. and having a library staff member act as a liaison with CPSO.

Additionally, according to CPSO’s 2017 annual report, stalking, rape, fondling and aggravated assault were at a three-year high in 2016. According to the 2016 Sexual Misconduct Campus Climate Survey, some of these numbers might be higher as one in seven women and one in three transgender and non-binary students have experienced sexual violence while enrolled at PSU.

Causes of crime are not simple

“Police say the rise in car thefts is partly a symptom of Portland’s ongoing epidemic of intravenous drug use,” stated the Willamette Week article, “which afflicts people for whom a warm, dry place is increasingly difficult to find.” Houselessness is still on the rise in Portland, with little relief immediately in sight as the city and Multnomah County prepare to lose 445 shelter beds this summer.

PSU sophomore Samantha Harris reported their car broken into just last week, also in Parking Structure 3, but said they might understand why. “[They] stole an emergency backpack I had in the back with emergency supplies,” Harris said. “I think it’s people in need of things [who] don’t have access to them.”

The unnamed student said she has “mixed feelings about the car break-ins.” While she is concerned about her safety, she empathizes with people experiencing houselessness and those who are potentially responsible for the thefts. “Those people breaking windows need the things inside,” she said. “It’s sad.”

She also said she does not believe employing more security guards on campus is the answer. In 2015, CPSO deployed armed police officers for the first time, but student groups like Disarm PSU and PSU’s International Socialist Organization continue to protest the decision. “The increase in security at PSU has left me feeling more unsafe,” the student said. “As a brown woman, I never feel safe around security or cops because I’m not. I was reminded just yesterday on campus when a white cop stopped me in my path for no reason.”

After repeated requests for comment, CPSO was unable to respond before PSU Vanguard’s print deadline. In its 2017 Annual Campus Security Report, CPSO wrote, “The [PSU] Campus Public Safety places campus security and safety as important priorities. [CPSO] will strive to provide students with a safe environment in which to learn.”

The report suggests several avenues for which the campus community can report incidents, including to Interpersonal Violence Advocates at the Women’s Resource Center, the Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion and counselors at the Center for Student Health and Counseling. Additionally, Housing and Residence Life offers “crime prevention programs for on-campus residents and resident advisors (RAs) throughout the academic year.”

PSU boasts the advantages of an urban campus, but as a downtown university, CPSO and administration struggle to find solutions to protect the PSU community and its property. “It’s a complicated issue,” the student said. “But my safety isn’t.”