May 14, 2013

Safety in knowledge

UCPD’s planned launch of a safety app is undermined by University’s selective security alert policy.

Student Government (SG) recently announced that it is working with the UCPD to launch a smartphone app aimed at increasing the UCPD’s ability to monitor student safety in its patrol area. The app, called Pathlight, will offer students an easy-to-use way to increase their own safety. However, its success rests on whether students are informed enough to use it well. The University’s selective policy on reporting crimes through campus-wide security alerts undermines not only the app, but also the broader goal of risk awareness among students and, in turn, the level of security on campus.

Pathlight is developed by The CBORD Group, the same firm that maintains our campus’s ID-based building security system. According to SG, it “allow[s] students to opt into GPS tracking services for their phones.” If a student is walking across campus alone at night, all she needs to do is launch the app, enter a destination, indicate how long the walk will take, and press “Follow Me Now” to initiate tracking. The UCPD would then be able to remotely track the student’s presence and progress until the walk is over, enabling something that resembles patrol car Umbrella Coverage, but is less resource-intensive for the UCPD. In addition to the tracking itself, Pathlight allows users to silently alert police dispatchers if they need emergency help. In this way, Pathlight functions almost as a portable blue light.

The app is a step forward for campus security. However, it is not without some drawbacks. For one, it is only available to those who have smartphones. Also, it is only likely to be used by those who feel as though they need it—that is, those whose knowledge of area crime leads them to feel unsafe on our campus. The University currently does not issue University-wide security alerts for all violent crimes that occur in the vicinity of student activity. For instance, a recent homicide of unknown motive that occurred at 52nd Street and Harper Avenue was not reported in an alert merely because the victim was not University affiliated. Such rationale is puzzling: The presence of a murderer in the area increases the threat of violence to every resident of Hyde Park, regardless of whether they are University affiliated. In light of this policy, the fact is that, unless a student is regularly checking the UCPD’s Daily Incident Reports, she is constantly making personal safety decisions that are based on only a partial picture of how and where crime occurs in her own neighborhood. Setting aside the University’s reasons for the policy, it should absolutely be revised so that it mandates the issuance of security alerts to all students for all violent crimes that occur within Hyde Park and northern Woodlawn and for all muggings that occur within at least two blocks of the main quads.

The UCPD’s planned adoption of Pathlight is a laudable development in improving campus security resources. However, it is unfortunate that its positive influence will be curtailed by the University’s reluctance to be as transparent and informative as it ought to be with notifying students about crime. It wouldn’t take much additional effort to ensure that students are appropriately informed about the incidence of crime in the neighborhood they call home. And if the University intends Pathlight to be a success, it would do well not to shirk this small responsibility.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.