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Tuesday, August 09, 2022 — Houston, TX

RUPD to roll out college security cameras

By Emily Abdow     4/13/16 9:39am

Rice University has approved funds for the Rice University Police Department to install security cameras outside of residential colleges to record entrances and exits. According to Police Chief Johnny Whitehead, several hundred security cameras are already on on campus in administration and academic buildings, but crime statistics have revealed the majority of crime including thefts, trespassing and sexual assault, occur in and around residential colleges.

“Security cameras have proven to be a valuable investigative tool for law enforcement,” Chief Whitehead said. “A recent example is the arrest of a homeless man suspected of murdering a student at University of Texas at Austin. The UT Austin Police Department was able to identify a suspect with the use of campus security cameras.”

Whitehead said he met personally with college masters and presidents last year to develop the campus-wide security camera policy. He emphasized that the policy will strike a balance between security and privacy, as cameras will not be allowed in private areas such as dormitory rooms, bathrooms and spaces used for medical care.

Whitehead also addressed concerns raised by college presidents that RUPD will monitor video from the cameras for code of conduct violations.

“RUPD does not have the resources to constantly monitor live video,” Whitehead said. “We anticipate using the video as an aide to solve crimes. No one will be allowed to download recorded video except RUPD.”

Student Association President Griffin Thomas, however, said he has a very different opinion of the approval of the cameras. He said he felt that at the meeting between Chief Whitehead, masters, and presidents that occurred in February 2015, Chief Whitehead presented the cameras as a hypothetical situation in order to seek feedback. Thomas said there was hesitancy among some masters and presidents, and was surprised when Chief Whitehead announced in March that money for the cameras had been allocated.

“I think sacrificing privacy for security is always a really difficult decision and not something that should be taken lightly,” Thomas said. “I think it’s unfortunate this decision was made so privately without public debate and public input.”

Thomas is also concerned about the effectiveness of the cameras. He said he feels that because they will not be continuously monitored, they will not be effective in preventing crime and will therefore not stop people from coming to campus and stealing bikes. But Thomas’ main worry, he said, is the effect the cameras will have on the relationship between RUPD and students.

“Students see RUPD as a resource for safety and not some sort of adversary,” Thomas said. “Through the process that the placement of security cameras was developed, I fear RUPD will be tainted and students will lose their trust.”

Thomas said he expects the cameras to be a topic of discussion in the SA in coming weeks, and that he is interested in looking at the security systems of other universities that do not rely on cameras.

“Security cameras are not without merit,” Thomas said. “I just think we are given a false choice between security and privacy and there are other ways of accomplishing security goals without giving up as much privacy.”

Paul Dingus, the Baker College president, said he feels there is currently a high level of trust between RUPD and students, and as a result, the students he has spoken with have expressed minimal concerns about the cameras.

“My only concern is that if this trust decays over the years, the cameras might be used inappropriately,” Dingus, a junior, said. “I believe that everyone involved in this process is working as hard as they can to create a system and a policy which prevent that outcome.”

Yasmine Khalfe, the Weiss College president, said she knows at least five female students who have been followed from either the metro or medical center as they returned to campus.

“No student should feel unsafe, and having security cameras in parking lots and at the entrances to Rice makes sense,” Khalfe, a said. “However, the matter of cameras gets trickier within the colleges because of privacy concerns and student life - take for example, Baker 13."

According to Chief Whitehead, because the budget was recently approved, there is not yet an exact timeline for the placement of the cameras. He said that Facilities Engineering & Planning will put together a timeline and estimates implementation is likely to start this summer.

Whitehead said RUPD has made significant investments over the past several years to improve campus safety. These include a digital radio system that allows for interoperability with the Houston Police Department, Houston Fire Department, and other jurisdictions, as well as the installation of an outdoor warning system, and the evaluation of campus lighting and landscaping. For Whitehead, the cameras are the next step.

“Installation of security cameras is part of an overall strategy to enhance campus safety at Rice,” Whitehead said.

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