The Broken Streetlights theory

With its annual Campus Safety Tour, the UND Police Department strives to keep UND ‘a safe place to live, learn, work and visit’

Sgt. Michael Pommerer of the UND Police Department notes a safety discrepancy that he and his group found on their sector of campus during the 2019 Campus Safety Tour. A well-lit and well-maintained campus means improved safety for students, Pommerer said. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

In the spring of 2018, in a survey that was sent to 12,800 degree-seeking students on the UND campus, 97 percent of respondents said that they feel safe.

Walking the campus greens, parking lots and sidewalks as part of the Campus Safety Tour last week showed why.

“Everybody ready?” said Eric Plummer, associate vice president for campus safety and chief of the UND Police, in front of the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the evening of Oct. 24. He was speaking to a group of six officers as well as two students, two UND staff members and one administrator, all of whom were about to spread out across campus to look for potential safety hazards.

This was the 2019 Campus Safety Tour, an annual tradition at UND and Plummer’s eighth since he became chief of police in 2012. “Originally, it was run by Housing, and they called it the Campus Lighting Tour,” Plummer told UND Today. “Then after that first one, I sat down with Housing and said hey, we’d really like to take the lead on this. Because it’s not just lights that students are concerned about. It’s broken sidewalks, it’s overgrown bushes.”

Eric Plummer, associate vice president for campus safety and chief of the UND Police, talks about the 2019 Campus Safety Tour in advance of UND Police officers and their groups venturing forth to inspect the campus. The tour helps officers look at the campus through students, staff members and residents’ eyes, Plummer said. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

The Campus Safety Tour was born. “And we urged not only students, but also people who live in the community to come and walk with us.”

With the Chester Fritz Building in the background, Plummer passed out clipboards with campus maps to the officers, then gave the group members their walking orders. Each officer was assigned a different section of campus, and there – accompanied by students, staffers and anyone else who wanted to tag along – the officer would walk around, looking for burned-out lights, too-dark corners, loose guardrails and any other potential hazards.

“Underneath the maps are several sheets of paper,” Plummer said. “Remember to jot down the location and what the safety issue is, and the light number.” If it’s a city streetlight, the number is at the base of the pole, he noted. If the light is on a University building, the number is directly underneath that light, about five or six feet above the ground.

“And when you’re done, come on back here,” Plummer said.

“Anybody have any particular wants for pizza?”

Student Body Vice President Matthew Ternus posed for a photo with Corporal Jake Schiller, who serves as a K-9 handler for the UND Police Department. Ternus and Schiller walked a campus route with Bear (center) on Thursday evening. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Seeing through new eyes

Pizza tops off the tour and is a great way to end the evening, Plummer told UND Today. That’s partly for the officers, some of whom take part in the tour even though it’s not on their shift. But it’s also for the fellowship, because a big part of the Campus Safety Tour is simply letting the officers and the campus-community members interact.

“Our goal is to give students, faculty and staff a chance to get to know the officers,” Plummer said. “And we really try to have that open communication. We had one student who said that seeing the officers around and interacting with them, they’re not just law enforcement any more. They’re community members – and that’s how we want our community to see us.”

Sgt. Michael Pommerer of the UND Police Department led one of the tours, which weaved around Wilkerson Hall and its nearby dorms, then crossed the English Coulee to inspect the residence-hall area there. “This is really useful, because while we try to notice things like lights during our shifts, we’re not really looking for them specifically,” Pommerer said, clipboard in hand.

“So, it’s good to be looking for just those kinds of hazards.” And, it’s good to be seeing the campus through other people’s, because students and staff notice things that officers might not, he said.

Pommerer walked with his participants through residence hall parking lots, finding the occasional burned-out light – “E-54,” he said, noting the number beneath one dark bulb – and a malfunctioning motion detector or two.

At one point, the group passed a Blue Light campus-security pole, a call from which gets treated by dispatchers and officers as a 911 emergency. “But it’s interesting – cell phones are the much more common way of communicating these days,” Pommerer said.

Plus, the Safe UND App offers not only a mobile Blue Light function – a one-touch call for help – but also other creative safety features. For example, students can use the Mobile GPS function, which lets a friend track them as they walk across campus. Or the Study Companion check-in feature, which alerts a friend if a student – who might be studying alone somewhere – doesn’t check in after a specified time.

Another safety feature: the cameras in UND parking lots and elsewhere, the streams from which UND officers can call up on their work computers.

Then there is the Adopt a Cop program – which pairs officers with residence halls and Greek houses, letting students get to know that officer; “it kind of puts a face to the badge,” Pommerer said – and other communications efforts, such as the UND Police Department’s extensive social media presence.

“All in all, it’s a partnership,” Pommerer said. “We can’t do our job without the help of the community, and the community can’t feel safe without our help.”

Pommerer took his group around the perimeter of the Wilkerson Complex dormitories and through the tunnels connecting the dorms to Wilkerson on the Campus Safety Tour before going across the coulee to the Walsh Quad. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Good lighting means safer students

Pommerer paused to make a note: E-41, another burned-out light. Later, he knew, that note would be turned into a work order, and a repair crew would be dispatched.

“We’re a very proactive police department,” he said.

“It kind of harkens back to what they call the Broken Windows theory of crime: Places that are rundown attract more crime. And if you show you take pride in your property, it makes other people take notice and take that same pride in their own communities and neighborhoods.”

A well-lit and well-maintained campus is more likely to be a safe campus, in other words.

Later that evening, over pizza back at the Chester Fritz, Chief Plummer agreed. “This is my eighth walking tour, and the difference from back then is really apparent,” he said.

That’s because every year, UND Facilities and the city of Grand Forks have responded to any discrepancies quickly and well. Moreover, “I think people know we are responsive as a department,” Plummer said.

“All the parents have my cell phone number, for example. I put it up during orientation and say, call me if you have concerns.” Afterwards, parents come up to him and ask, Is that really your cell phone?

“I say, ‘You bet!’” Plummer said.

“People text me at 2 in the morning, I text them right back. That’s why the officers are out here tonight, too . They like being visible, they like interacting with students in a positive way.

“And that’s the whole point of this tour: to keep UND a safe place to live, learn, work and visit.”