HOLMBERG: VCU campus alerts – balancing safety against spreading perceptions of menace

Posted at 12:24 AM, Oct 11, 2012
and last updated 2012-10-11 00:24:03-04

RICHMOND, VA. (WTVR)--Within seconds of a confrontation between a bicyclist and four young men just off W. Broad Street near Virginia Commonwealth University Wednesday afternoon, Richmond and VCU police swarmed the area, chasing down two suspects.

No one was arrested, and a campus alert wasn’t sounded.

But so far this semester students have seen plenty; “ . . . 11, 12, 13, 14,” one student said while counting the alerts on her phone.

That`s nearly as many one recent graduate saw in the four years he attended VCU.

“We look at each one of those situations individually and evaluate whether there is risk for the VCU community,” said VCU Police Chief John Venuti.

But several of the recent alerts have had absolutely nothing to do with students or the actual campus. They’ve just been nearby.

For instance, Tuesday night`s stabbing by the John Marhall Courts building happened to be within a block of the edge of the VCU Medical Center.

And there was an alert about the fatal shooting in the 300 block of W. Marshall Street early Sunday morning. But it was several blocks from campus. The victim wasn`t a student.

Venuti said the risk assessment must be made immediately to be effective.

“I don’t have the luxury of waiting a day and evaluating the situation,” he said. “We need to make a determination immediately whether or not this situation represents ongoing risk for members of our community. And if it does, we’re going to take the necessary action to inform the community.”

By federal law - the so-called Clery Act of 1990  -  schools must quickly notify students and faculty of crimes or other dangerous conditions occurring on or adjacent to campuses.

Virginia Tech ran afoul of that law during the mass shooting there five years ago.

“There are things we’re required to do by law,” Venuti said, “and there are things that we do because we want the community to know what they need to do to take the steps and measures to safeguard and protect themselves.”

The problem for VCU is it’s an urban university with roughly 150 acres of facilities scattered over several square miles of the downtown area.

And it`s continuing to grow, meeting the needs of more than 31,000 students while spurring new businesses catering to them.

This vast, recently-built apartment complex north of I-95 and near the Gilpin Court housing complex is tailored for students, spreading VCU`s reach into yet another neighborhood.

Venuti , formerly the head of the Richmond Police Department`s violent crimes squad, says the actual crimes affecting students held steady during the past year. It`s just they`re being more vigilant.

“The VCU Police Department has never done more,” he said, “and we’re going to continue to provide that high level of service . . .”

It’s a delicate balancing act; informing students and faculty of apparent criminal activity nearby while not overstating the actual threat to the university community.

Perception can be reality. It could hurt VCU, and the city, if the perception grows that the university and its surroundings are menacing.  There’s no doubt there’s been an unusual spate of robberies and assaults on or near campus this semester.

Venuti said everyone in the area has a stake in this situation, and all should be vigilant and participate in alerting authorities to potential problems.