The end of every August hearkens the arrival of thousands of students to the Gallatin Valley. The side effects are well known: more crowds, more traffic, fewer parking spots. But something else tends to come with the start of the new semester.
Among sexual assault survivor advocacy groups, this is the busiest time of the year nationally. The “red zone” is the first six weeks of the semester and accounts for a large portion of all of the sexual assaults that will occur over the school year. “That could be for a lot of reasons if you think about it,” explained Joe Schumacher, education and prevention specialist for the MSU VOICE Center. Schumacher explained that there’s a convergence of new people seeking new experiences. This is especially true for younger students. During those first six weeks, “the majority of these crimes are being committed against primarily freshmen and sophomores,” Schumacher said, possibly because they’re seen as naïve or as easy targets.
Possibly even more concerning than the rise in sex crime reports is the reporting itself. “Sexual assault is one of the most unreported crimes there is,” Schumacher said, following a statistic from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network that indicates 68 percent of rapes go unreported. Even a small increase in reports of sexual assault could hint at a much more sizable jump in actual perpetrations.
Schumacher stressed that one of the most important factors in preventing sexual assault is bystander intervention. If the community is well-educated and willing to help, then “we can take care of each other,” he said. During the red zone, the VOICE Center tries to combat the increase of sexual assault. “We stepped up our awareness efforts, our visibility efforts,” he said. “We went to all of the orientations, so we spoke to all of the incoming freshmen. We went to all of the residence halls the night before classes started … we talked about prevention and we talked about risk reduction strategies.”
But sexual assaults aren’t the only type of crime that sees wide variation over the year. In the city of Bozeman, a number of other crimes see a measurable rise with the start of the semester. For many of them, the first two months see the highest rates, with a fall-off before and after.
Since Jan. 1, 2011, Bozeman Police have received over 233,000 calls for service. A call for service “is the term used for a call dispatched to an officer,” explained Deanna Foster, police information specialist at the Bozeman Police Department (BPD). As of Sept. 31, those calls for service resulted in nearly 23,000 recorded cases. A case results from a call for service “that requires further investigation and/or has charges involved,” Foster wrote. These cases include everything from warrant arrests to traffic crimes and homicide.
This data was analyzed by dividing each year into the first two months of school, the rest of the semester, and the summer. It was further broken out by specific types of crimes that were expected to vary considerably before being compared (see BOX 1).
For 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, data from BPD was segmented into three time frames: summer (spanning from mid-May to the day before the start of the semester), the first two months of school (from the first day of class to Oct. 31), and the remainder of the school year (Nov. 1 to mid-May). In addition to knowing the total volume of cases in each time frame, specific categories of crimes hypothesized to increase were tabulated (see FIGURE X). In order to standardize data across windows of time of different lengths, the sum of each case category was divided by the number of days in the time frame, yielding an average number of cases per day. Averaging the daily rates across all five years within each window allows for more statistically significant comparison of the change in crime rates from summer to fall to winter/spring. The total of the broken-out case categories averaged vary by as much as 26 percent between the three time windows while the averaged sums of the all of the non-selected categories only vary by a maximum of 1.2 percent between time windows.
The results show a modest increase of about 12 percent in total case numbers between the first two months of the semester versus the entire rest of the year, but the majority of variation occurs in the suspected crimes (see BOX 2).
All crimes, as recorded by BPD and described in the Montana legal code
Assault: all forms, including aggravated, partner/family, simple
Burglary/Robbery: all forms, including aggravated, residential, and non-residential
Criminal Mischief: petty property tampering crimes including things like vandalism
Disorderly Conduct: disruptive behavior like quarreling, threatening, blocking traffic
DUI: including aggravated, non-alcohol, and repeat offenses
Hit and Run: all forms of “failure to notify” offenses: failure to leave info on a parked vehicle or failing to identify self or vehicle in a motor vehicle collision
MIP: in possession of alcohol under the age of 21
PODD/PODP/Sale: possession of dangerous drugs or drug paraphernalia, includes sale or intent to sell
Sex Crimes: all sexual assault and rape, excluding sexual abuse of children
Theft from Building: unauthorized removal of items from a building
Theft from Vehicle: unauthorized entry and theft of materials from vehicle, including theft of vehicle parts
Theft of Vehicle: motor vehicle theft
Theft, All Other: shoplifting, pickpocketing, embezzlement, etc
Trespass: unauthorized or unlawful property intrusion
Of the selected case types, those that see the largest increase are, assault, criminal mischief, MIP and various forms of theft. Many of these see moderate increases from the summer, but large drop-offs at the end of the two-month period.
On campus, statistics are a bit more difficult to manage. While the MSU Police Department (MSUPD) maintains record logs, their system is not sophisticated enough for easy extraction of data by crime type or other criteria. MSUPD does have to report crime statistics, but they’re reported as Clery crimes as dictated by the Clery Act, which reports broad criminal categories. One, for example, is “Liquor Law Violations.” This nonspecific category includes illegal manufacture, possession, use, sale and so on. If, however, MSUPD wanted to break out the different types of liquor law crimes, they would “have to go back and review every single Clery crime — 400 reports — read the report, and determine what other classification it’d fit into,” said Chief of MSU Police Robert Putzke.
MSUPD did donate a considerable amount of time to do this for the purposes of this article. The data produced looks similar to that in the city. “From summer to fall we see a big uptick in all of our caseload,” said Putzke. As with BPD, August spikes are seen in MIP, drug crimes and theft.
While many of the crimes that increase in rate are victimless and difficult to curb, crimes like theft can be prevented. According to Putzke, “the biggest crime — numerical crime — we have on campus is theft of unsecured property.” Being crimes of opportunity, Putzke stressed, they can easily be prevented simply by securing belongings. That means not leaving books or a computer unattended at the library or in the SUB.
The change in fall caseload certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by police forces and is largely predictable. Putzke says his officers “could be blindfolded, in a sense, and know exactly what September brings.” Police try to deter certain expected crimes by stepping up patrol — around bike racks, for example. Bikes have proven to be a particularly hot target for theft over the years. In the past, it’s largely been just unlocked bikes. “This semester we’ve seen an uptick in people cutting cable locks off,” said Putzke. And it’s not just students who fall victim. “Our dean of students had his bicycle stolen.” According to Putzke, Matt Caires’ bike was locked “with a pretty decent cable lock” before it was thieved near the end of September.
The targeted locked bikes are primarily those with small cable locks or other locks that can be easily severed with small bolt cutters as well as bikes improperly locked with the lock only going through the front tire. To keep bikes safe, Putzke recommends using a sturdy lock (especially U-shaped locks) to lock both the front wheel and the frame to the rack.
The first months of the semester aren’t the only time with increases in crime on campus. Data from MSUPD reveals that April is also a busy month for opportunistic criminals. Students spending hours in the library or other study spots tend to “leave things laying around on tables more than they normally would,” MSUPD Detective Sergeant Michael Stanley explained. It’s common for belongings to go unattended while students briefly duck out to grab coffee and criminals take advantage before the end of the year to “swing by the pawn shop and get some cash for the road,” Stanley said. From bikes to books, “we recover a fair amount of stuff at pawn shops,” Putzke agreed.
It’s easy to see a correlation with increased crime and the start of the semester, but it’s critical to note it’s neither possible nor appropriate to assign blame to the incoming mass of students — or anything for that matter — with this analysis alone. There are too many variables left unexplored and probably most importantly, many of these numbers are small. For example, the total number of all reported sex crimes (an already artificially-broadened category lumping rape with sexual assault) was only 55 in 2012, the most voluminous year for that group of crimes. Factoring that against the nearly 5,000 total cases that year means that a variation of just one or two could largely change the outcome between time frames in a year. So even though a crime category may show an increase during a certain time of year, caution must be taken in drawing sweeping or dramatic conclusions.
The most important conclusion — and indeed the only possible one — that can be drawn is that every fall, there is an increase in crime; some categories see a greater change than others. Searching for the cause, whether proximate or ultimate, would be nearly impossible. However, simply knowing about this phenomena can help decrease its severity. Consider what crimes you may be at risk for and do what can be done to reduce your risk and the risk to others. Regardless of the severity of the crime or the size of its increase at the start of the semester, during this time, Schumacher was adamant that “we need to be extra vigilant and extra proactive.”