Public Comment

Commentary: Making the UC Campus Safer

By Benjamin Freedman
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:49:00 AM

We are all very impressed with the action of two UC police officers, who apprehended kidnapper Philip Garrido. Nevertheless, the recent murder of Yale pharmacology graduate student Annie Le inside her own lab building reminds us that danger never stops. The case strikes a cord with me because Annie reminds me of many of the excellent students here at Berkeley, close to her hometown of Placerville. 

According to police, the body “was found behind the wall in something called a chase, which is a space that carries utilities from one floor to another.” The fact that the body was so cleverly hidden suggests some prior knowledge of the building. As a researcher in lab on Berkeley campus, I do not find this surprising at all. Our building, Life Science Addition, is routinely infiltrated by criminals, who wander the halls looking for laptops to swipe. Many of these enter during daylight hours, when the building is open to the public, and wait around until after hours to commit their crime. In Annie’s case, the perpetrator may have cased the building during the day, noticed the chase at some point, then returned to stash the body there after the murder. In our building, students and staff routinely encounter and occasionally confront laptop thieves who come in off the street. These confrontations arise because it is not easy to identify a suspicious individual without questioning. 

I would like to share with you a conversation I had by e-mail with former Chief Victoria Harrison. I was moved to write her after she e-mailed everyone on campus regarding the police response to the tree sitters. I wrote her (verbatim) that a distracting tree-sitter seems somewhat miniscule in light of the approximately 20 laptops that have been stolen out of our building (Life Science Addition) over the past two years. She replied rather blithely that the police were limited and it was our responsibility as a building community to identify criminals and call the police. One month later, I wrote back to her describing a recent incident: “A large black man with a scar was seen walking through the laboratories on our floor at approximately 9:30 a.m. He was rifeling through some drawers in a lab in plain view. A labmate of mine—a young woman graduate student, who was practically alone—asked him who he was looking for. He cited a name, which she did not recognize. She was suspicious, but gave him the benefit of the doubt. The suspect then proceeded to have the labmate show him to the second floor, where she left him knocking on a door and quickly ran to call the police.” 

This time, I also convinced the Daily Californian to put a reporter on the case. Chief Harrison replied in greater detail: “There are a variety of ways to minimize this kind of intrusion, such as by keeping interior doors closed and locked, arranging furniture so that someone inside the room can always see the door, and locking the doors and windows when everyone’s away. Other options include alarms, video systems, custom locks and hardware (such as key-card access points), or even dedicated guards. But there is a delicate balance between the implementation of security measures and our goal of maintaining an open academic environment free from unnecessary inconvenience...Our goals to install and enforce measures that are appropriate for the level of risk and type of activity at the site, in a way that does not interfere with normal operations and purposes such as deliveries, visitors, lectures, maintenance, research activities, administrative work, and so on. Whatever the measures taken, and even in the most strictly controlled environments, the police department ultimately must rely on those who know their workspace to identify persons who do not belong. We do not expect or want legitimate building occupants to put themselves in potentially unsafe situations by confronting trespassers and prowlers, but we do need your assistance in contacting our department to report suspicious behavior or situations, so we can respond and investigate for you... I will ask our Crime Prevention Unit to review LSA's security measures, and to recommend any changes that might be appropriate given current building uses, criminal trends and occupant concerns. We will work with the LSA building coordinator during our analysis.” 

After continued prodding, building administrators called a building meeting and the building was restricted to keycard access only after dark (no security guard). Nevertheless, we have had several incidents since then. Not long ago, I ran into a suspicious person after hours, posing as a scientist. I confronted him, asked what he was doing, requested an ID, and told him to leave when he refused to produce one. On his way out I called the police from my cell phone and he was arrested as he fled the building. A similar confrontation occurred on Aug. 21, also leading to an arrest. Although we have made progress, these prowlers were only caught after potentially dangerous confrontations. This is the problem with the current system—it is too difficult to know whether an individual is suspicious without confronting him. It is possible that Annie Le ran into a similar confrontation situation but was not so lucky. 

Few classes take place in our building. We should have keycard-restricted access all day long. A security guard would also be a good investment. If funds are short, the UC might appeal to the Federal Department of Homeland security to sponsor the creation of security guard positions (an easy way for Obama to create jobs). I hope police and administrators at universities everywhere take note of the Annie Le case, as well as the largely-forgotten Virginia Tech massacre, and take the time to reassess their security priorities. There are more dangerous things out there in this world than tree-sitters. 



Benjamin Freedman is a UC Berkeley PhD '09