Campus crime on the rise

Sgt. Tolar stands tall as a proud member of the (MSU Police force) photo by Nicole Smith

The city of Bozeman boasts one of the lowest crime rates in Montana, with fewer crimes per resident than Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Kalispell and Helena.

There have been just two homicides in the city since 2005. Car thefts are down. Burglaries are down. Overall, the crime rate has fallen.

But on the MSU campus, burglary, sexual assault, and drug and alcohol violations are up.

University Police reports that crime has risen over the last three years as enrollment has swelled from about 12,800 in 2009 to 14,200 in 2011. Despite this growth, the University Police Department has not expanded.

The department is authorized to employ a total of 17 officers, including 10 patrol officers. Of these 10 spots for patrol officers, only six are currently filled. “We have fewer officers that are able to do investigations and make arrests,” Police Chief Robert Putzke explained. “In addition, we are seeing an increased burden on the officers we have.”

Matter of Location

The high number of on-campus residents significantly affects crime numbers, Putzke explained.

To combat this problem, University Police and Residence Life work closely together to prevent crime in the campus community. Crime prevention programs such as Adopt-A-Cop exist to encourage students to report crimes and reduce overall occurrences of crime.

Despite these measures, the majority of on-campus crime occurs in the residence halls. According to Putzke, “The reason we see more thefts and more problems in residence halls is because they are the only place where people are present 24/7.” On-campus residents also keep valuable items in their dorm rooms, raising the incentive for theft and burglary.

Between 2009 and 2010, incidents of burglary on campus increased from three to 14.

But a close reading of the reports suggests many of these thefts could have been avoided if residents simply locked their doors. Last year, thefts occurred while residents were sleeping, showering or had stepped across the hall.

Vehicles in campus parking lots are often targeted as well. In 2011, students reported tires, golf clubs, car stereos, GPS navigation equipment and even license plates as stolen from vehicles in campus lots. Some of the most commonly stolen items were parking permits left in unlocked cars.

In March, officers even responded to a report of a vehicle covered with peanut butter and cookies.

The Issue in Perspective

On-campus residents tend to stay on campus to drink and smoke, while students living off campus are more likely to drink or smoke away from campus. This means that many students remain out of jurisdiction of the University Police and do not factor into the official statistics.

Accounts of MIPs, DUIs and hit-and-runs dominate the monthly reports. For instance, police have responded to nearly one MIP offense a day so far this September. The number of persons referred for drug law violations on campus increased by roughly 30 percent in 2011, jumping from 51 in 2010 to 71.

Professor of Sociology David Eitle explained that this rise is consistent with national trends. Rates of substance use among teenagers and college students have increased since 2008, reversing a decades-long decrease in drug use.

“There’s a theory that, over time, kids forget the lessons their parents learned,” Eitle said.

One reason for the increase in drug violations could in part be due to the medical marijuana law passed in Montana in 2004. “I think when Montana legalized medical marijuana, the whole state saw an uptick in providers and users of marijuana, ” Putzke explained.  “We see those stats reflected on campus.”

The other area of increased reported crime has been sexual assault. In 2010, there were three reported incidents of forcible sexual offenses on campus; in 2011, there were a total of eight. These numbers include both rape and unwanted touching.

Incidents of rape in the larger community of Bozeman have also increased. Most of these reports are of “stranger rapes” — rapes in which the offender is not known by the victim. According to Eitle, acquaintance rapes have a much higher rate than stranger rapes but often go unreported. These tend to occur at parties, which bring together “motivated offenders and vulnerable victims” mixing with other risk factors like drugs and alcohol.

Still Safe at MSU

MSU is required to publish their crime statistics in accordance with the Clery Act, which was established in 1990 as a result of a “social movement” over concern that “[universities] were not taking campus crime seriously,” Eitle explained. The Clery Act requires that institutions keep records of certain, major crimes such as criminal homicide, sexual assault, robbery, arson and theft of motor vehicles.

Smaller, petty crimes are not included in the Clery Act and are recorded in a different manner. In addition, not all crimes that occur are necessarily being reported, so the official university statistics are a “very poor proxy for the actual amount of crime occurring,” Eitle said.

Despite these discrepancies, “After comparing our crime statistics to other similar universities, it’s evident that MSU-Bozeman is one of the safest places in the country for students to receive their education,” Dean of Students Matt Caires commented. “However, bad things do occur on campus from time to time.”