“Houston is a huge city, and Rice University is one of the safest parts of the city, but we’re still vulnerable,” Rice Police Chief Johnny Whitehead told employees at the Aug. 8 Brown Bag Event on campus safety.
“I worry that it feels so safe that people don’t realize we’re vulnerable,” he said.
Thefts on campus are evidence of that vulnerability. “Most of the crimes on campus are property crimes,” Whitehead said, noting there are about 175 to 200 thefts a year.
Backpacks, cellphones and laptops are among the items that have been stolen when they were left unattended, Whitehead said. He cautioned employees about leaving possessions out in the open when no one is around, especially on car seats, where potential thieves can spot them and break the window to steal property.
The Rice University Police Department (RUPD) has used a campaign called “Give a hoot — secure your loot” to remind the Rice community to lock up their valuables or keep them guarded.
Bikes are a particular item that warrants such a reminder. “Bike thefts are our biggest property theft on campus,” Whitehead said. He recommended using the hardened steel U-locks on bikes and registering bikes with RUPD so they can be returned to the owner if recovered.
A bait-bike program implemented last year has resulted in at least 30 arrests. A global-positioning system (GPS) device that RUPD attaches to the “bait bike” enables Rice police to locate thieves who steal the bike shortly after the dispatcher is alerted that the GPS device is moving. “We have arrested one suspect three times for bike theft and an additional time for trespassing on campus before he was able to steal again,” Whitehead said.
“The campus community has been very helpful by calling in suspicious people and conditions,” he said. “Several arrests have resulted from these calls.”
Several robberies occurred on campus last year, and RUPD put more officers and security specialists on overtime to patrol, especially along the routes that students walk to get to the graduate apartments. Whitehead said the increased presence of RUPD seems to have been effective, but he advised that students travel in groups if they’re walking through the neighborhoods to their apartment at night or request an escort from RUPD.
Pedestrian and bicyclist safety is also a concern because of traffic in the area, Whitehead said. He noted that the city is working on intersection improvements, crosswalks and signal timing along the Main Street corridor between Rice and the Texas Medical Center. The intersection of Main Street and University Boulevard will be redesigned with “traffic calming” features designed to slow down or reduce motor vehicle traffic, Whitehead said.
He noted that several HAWK (High-intensity Activated crossWalK) signals will be installed along Rice Boulevard. The HAWK uses lights and other features to stop vehicles so that pedestrians can cross the roadway and then permits drivers to proceed as soon as the pedestrians have passed. One will be installed near the church where graduate students cross to get to the Rice Graduate Apartments.
The speed radar sign that has been installed along Rice Boulevard has helped get drivers to reduce their speed, Whitehead said. RUPD officers have been working radar and issuing speeding citations to violators on streets adjacent to the campus.
Several staff members in the audience complained about joggers running across campus exits without looking to see if cars are coming. Whitehead agreed that it’s a problem that needs more attention. RUPD tried an education campaign last year where officers stood at the soft path near Entrance 8 and handed out flyers to pedestrians to remind them to cross intersections safely.
He encouraged members of the Rice community to enroll in the nine-week Citizens Police Academy to get a better perspective on what RUPD does. “It’s a good experience and we’ve had very positive feedback on it,” he said.
RUPD also offers Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) training.
Whitehead gave an overview of the police department, which employs 30 sworn police officers, 11 security specialists, seven dispatchers, five parking enforcement officers, two locksmiths and three administrative staff members. Rice Emergency Medical Services is also part of RUPD and offers EMT, CPR and first-aid training.
Whitehead said all officers have been trained to respond to an active-shooter situation. They’re also required to complete a course on how to deal with sexual assaults and domestic violence.
RUPD is currently pursuing accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies.
“I’m enjoying the experience here,” Whitehead said. “This is the most diverse department I’ve worked for. Everyone’s been really supportive and open to change.”
To report a crime or request assistance, call RUPD at 713-348-6000; for more information on the department, including its programs and statistics, visit rupd.rice.edu.
The Brown Bag Event was organized by the Staff Advisory Committee.