In spite of attempted robbery, U crime still low

A University of Minnesota police vehicle is parked outside Anderson Hall at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus, Monday afternoon, Nov. 11, 2013.  Police said an armed man tried to rob a student in Anderson Hall Monday afternoon before fleeing into the tunnel system between buildings.  (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jeffrey Wheeler)

Monday’s attempted daylight robbery of a University of Minnesota student follows a rash of robberies that could make crime a bigger concern this fall on campus than in past semesters.

But crime statistics suggest the campus is considerably safer than it was at least a decade ago.

And Monday’s robbery appears to be an anomaly — occurring on campus in broad daylight instead of off campus at night, when most happen.

“It’s the only one [of its kind] I ever remember in 10 years,” said Gregory Hestness, campus police chief.

Much of the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus was put on alert around 3:15 p.m. after a man approached a female student who was alone studying in a stairwell of Anderson Hall.

He displayed a gun and demanded that she give him her laptop. The student screamed, and the man fled into the West Bank tunnel system.

He was never caught, and the U issued an alert around 4:10 p.m. saying the search had been called off.

The next day, President Eric Kaler emailed the university community:

The rash of recent robberies and other crimes near and on our Minneapolis campus is troubling and disturbing, and it angers and frustrates me.

He called Monday’s attempted robbery “especially troubling,” and called for more security measures, such as increased police patrols.

On Wednesday, U of M campus police cleared an initial person of interest of any wrongdoing. Police have now identified a second person of interest and are looking for the public’s help in finding him.

Police had already begun patrolling more in October after four recent robberies of students.

Police said the fall semester sees more crime in the campus community than at any other time of the year, due in part to the influx of new students.

Since 2009, police have reported an average of 22 robberies — the most common type of crime in the area — from September through November of each year. Monday’s robbery puts this year’s number at 17 — more than where the U would be at this point in the semester.

“It’s on the higher side of what we see in the fall,” Hestness said.

The robberies don’t appear to be linked, he said.

But what concerns police is the growing number of robberies committed by groups of men targeting several people — usually students — who are walking together. In the past, walking with someone was considered more of a deterrent.

Hestness said robbers are usually looking for iPhones and, to a lesser extent, laptops.

But he stressed that campus crime is at an all-time low. The category of offenses that include violent crime and robbery is down 35 percent from a decade ago. (In a recent Minnesota Daily commentary, Hestness wrote that crime is lower than it was in 1989.)

Hestness said that most crime occurs off campus. In the five neighborhoods surrounding the university, robberies are up about 28 percent since 1997 — but down 62 percent since the number peaked in 2005.

So far the U has issued 13 campus alerts — about the same as in all of 2006, but down from a high of 17 in 2010. Three of those were for crimes on campus, a slight decrease from the amount in 2010.

To heighten security, President Kaler proposed in his campus email yesterday that the U find the money to increase foot and bike patrols by increasing overtime pay and adding officers. He also suggested expanding patrols coordinated with the Minneapolis police as well as beefing up a university ride-home program.

Hestness estimated it would cost roughly $20,000 a semester in overtime to beef up patrols, and would cost more than $100,000 an officer if the U decided to beef up the full-time campus police force.

He said the use of personnel would have to be strategic.

“You can’t be staffed 365 days a year for occasional peaks,” he said.

In Kaler’s note, the president also said the U will also add security cameras, especially in high-traffic areas, and review how public the university should make certain buildings:

“We are also developing a plan for enhanced building security to define what spaces are fully public, University community only, or restricted access, and how to better monitor and control openness of buildings.”

Hestness said about 180 of the U’s 270 buildings have a card-swipe security system, and officials may discuss whether to lengthen the hours they’re most secure.

But that wouldn’t have prevented the attempted robbery Monday afternoon; it occurred in the early afternoon.

All in all, Hestness said he didn’t think the measures would make the campus more restrictive.