Q&A With U.Va. Police Chief Gibson on Safety

October 20, 2010

October 20, 2010 — University of Virginia Police Chief Mike Gibson, in a Q and A with Virginia Carter, director of external relations for student affairs, responds to parents' and students' concerns about recent attacks, details what the University is doing, and suggests ways parents and students can take action.

Q: Has the number of assaults on students increased this fall?

A: We do believe there has been an increase, although the numbers are still very low. We are fairly certain that students are calling us more often and reporting incidents more frequently – something we want and encourage them to do.

What's more important than the numbers themselves is the general feeling out in the community that crime against students has increased. One incident is one too many. For that reason, we are looking at different ways of increasing our safety efforts. We continue to work closely with the Charlottesville Police Department. For at least the past five years, we have shared a joint patrol with them in areas close to the Grounds where there is a dense population of students.

Q: What areas does the joint patrol cover?

A: The partnership between our department and the Charlottesville police covers a large area adjacent to the Grounds. It encompasses an area that consists almost exclusively of rental properties where students live. Geographically, it extends north to Grady Avenue, east to 14th Street, south on 14th to Wertland Street, back east to 10thstreet, and south to West Main Street.

Q: What is U.Va. doing to promote and increase safety?

A: Safety is a 24/7 priority at the University; we are always trying to watch out for our students and respond to their needs. In recent weeks, we have taken the following steps:

  • The presence of both plainclothes and uniformed police patrols has increased, especially on weekends, on the Corner and in areas where students live off Grounds.
  • We have issued alerts to the entire community – students, faculty and staff – when criminal incidents have occurred so they have the benefit of this information. The alerts include safety reminders and suggestions. Pat Lampkin, U.Va's vice president and chief student affairs officer, also regularly sends safety reminders. She will be sending one the week of Halloween, for example, since this is a popular time with students, and their activities might draw attention from those wanting to do harm.
  • The University's Security and General Safety Committee works with students, landlords and others to improve safety. When the committee receives tips about unsafe conditions, especially low lighting, Marge Sidebottom, who chairs the committee and is also director of emergency preparedness, works quickly to assess the situation and make improvements as appropriate.
  • University buses are continuing to run late on the weekends to accommodate students. Beginning on Oct. 28, a Thursday late-night bus schedule will be added to the existing Friday and Saturday night schedules.
  • Parking fees for the Central Grounds Garage drop from $2 to 50 cents an hour after 5 p.m. After 10 p.m., the fee is only $1 to park until 8 a.m. the next day. This fee structure has been in place for a while, but some students may who not realize that it is very affordable to park in the garage after dark.
  • We have reminded students about the availability of self-defense classes, and we have received many interested responses. This week, we announced a four-part class that starts on Nov. 9.
  • SafeRide, the van service operated by the University Police Department, now runs from midnight to 7 a.m., rather than 6 a.m., to better serve students during the winter.

Q: Some students do not speak favorably of SafeRide. Are improvements being made?

A: We believe that SafeRide is a good program, but, in reality, it serves thousands of students with finite resources. We are looking at SafeRide to see where improvements can be made to make it more efficient. We currently operate three vans. We will be adding another dispatcher soon so it will be easier for students to call and request a ride.

Q: What conditions, in your view, are contributing to the criminal activity against students?

A: It is likely a combination of factors. College students can be seen as targets, especially if they are taking risks, such as walking alone while intoxicated. The economy has caused many individuals to lose their jobs and is likely leading some of them to commit crimes. Unfortunately, other campuses in Virginia have reported similar crimes against students.

Q: What can students do?

A: We encourage students to look out for themselves and for one another. We also want them to call 911 anytime they see suspicious persons or situations. They should not worry about bothering us. We want them to call. Part of maintaining a safe community is involving the police as quickly as possible so that situations can be assessed, perpetrators can be caught, and the public can be made aware of such incidents.

It is also very helpful when students tell us or the safety committee about unsafe conditions so we can make improvements, such as additional lighting.

Following basic safety measures is important. We see so many instances of students living off Grounds who don't lock their doors, for example. We certainly don't want to put the onus directly on students, but we know many of them could do more to protect themselves. Our website includes a thorough list of crime-prevention tips.

In addition, students should program safety and emergency telephone numbers into their cell phones. A list of resources, along with information about the University's procedures for emergency communications is available on the Office of Emergency Preparedness website.

Q: What can parents do?

A: The most important thing for parents is to reinforce personal safety with their sons and daughters. Once students leave home, this becomes the student's responsibility because the parent can no longer be there. Nor can the police be everywhere all the time. Parents can also work with their students to approach their landlords if conditions are unsafe around student housing. We find the landlords very receptive to making modifications to increase student safety. The U.Va. Parents Committee has published a safety guide to help parents and students as they make decisions about living off Grounds.

Many of the recent incidents involving students could be described as crimes of opportunity. A perpetrator who sees a student walking alone at 3 a.m., for example, is apt to take advantage of the student's vulnerability. When students are intoxicated, their defenses are down and their judgment is diminished. Walking alone in such a condition makes it even easier for an attack to occur. We see numerous instances where students put themselves at risk. We want students to enjoy themselves, but it is vital that they take steps to protect themselves.

Our safety reminders become repetitious after a while, and we are often concerned that students will stop paying attention. We feel that the messages, though, are worth repeating. Having parents reinforce those messages and teach good safety habits is helpful.

Q: Why do parents not receive the police notifications?

A: Police alerts are intended for the immediate U.Va. community – students, faculty and staff. As soon as they are sent, they are posted on the U.Va. homepage, where parents and anyone else can read them. U.Va. Alerts are another form of emergency communication. They also go to students, faculty and staff, but are very rare, brief and are used when immediate danger is present.

Q: Is Charlottesville a safe place?

A: Charlottesville is like many college towns. It is relatively safe, but crime does occur here. The environment means that students can be selected as targets. Everyone needs to be smart about personal safety. Any community anywhere can be vulnerable to crime. We are here to help in every way possible, and we encourage students to call us when they are concerned or need help.