Cameras help UT secure its campus

But, police caution, security devices can't prevent all assaults

By: Laura Heinauer, Staff
Austin American-Statesman
July 17, 2004 Saturday

A security camera caught the man's lumbering gait, wide-eyed expression and freckled face as he fled an off-campus parking garage after, police say, he sexually assaulted a University of Texas student.

In this case, the surveillance camera happened to catch the suspected attacker as he entered and left the garage, which is located off Guadalupe Street near the Dobie Center.

But it wasn't enough to prevent the Tuesday evening assault, serving as a reminder that such attacks -- the numbers of which have fluctuated on and near campus in recent years -- can still occur despite an increased focus on security.

"I got freaked out when I walked through (the Dobie garage) last night," junior Ellen Giles said Friday. "I always try to be careful and make sure I'm aware of my surroundings, because you never know what can happen."

According to the department, the victim was in her car when the man sexually assaulted her.

Most sexual assaults are believed to go unreported. UT police statistics show that the number of reported sexual assaults on campus has fluctuated recently.

In 2000, for example, three sexual assaults were reported. In 2001, the number jumped to 13.

In 2002, the latest year that campus police have compiled complete statistics, 16 sexual assaults were reported on-campus, and three were reported off-campus. Police said there was one reported on-campus assault in 2003 but did not have off-campus statistics. They said no on-campus assaults have been reported so far this year.

Aside from cameras, there are other ways the university is trying to prevent the number of assaults from climbing. Call boxes have been installed at various spots on campus, and defense classes are offered free to female students.

Last year, student government leaders started working toward bringing a key-chain security system to campus that would let students in distress summon police by pushing a panic button.

That service could be available by next year.

For now, campus police rely largely on the 200 or so surveillance cameras mounted in dormitories, garages, libraries and research facilities, university spokesman Don Hale said.

But police warn that the cameras shouldn't provide students with a false sense of security.

"A lot of times people think cameras are going to protect them from becoming victims," said campus police crime prevention officer Bill Piper. "It can be helpful as an investigative tool, but when it comes to prevention it offers little assistance."

Only two of the campus cameras are monitored by UT police, Assistant Chief Terry McMahan said. One is trained on a statue, and another monitors an automated teller machine.

Police have refused to disclose the exact locations of the cameras, citing security reasons, and despite a state attorney general's opinion under the Texas Public Information Act.

The university has sued the attorney general's office, and the case is still pending, university officials said Friday.

Officials at Dobie, which is not a campus property, said they have 14 cameras monitoring both the garage and theater buildings. Austin police credit the devices for giving them a fairly good description of the sex assault suspect.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 472-8477.

lheinauer@statesman.com; 246-1150