“I called campus security on my phone using the number that was on the website, and it just rang and rang and rang,” said Iain Marjoribanks, a fifth-year geography student at UBC, in an interview with The Ubyssey. He had left one of his personal belongings in a campus building and was trying to gain access back into the building just after 11 p.m. that same night. 

“I finally got fed up and walked up to [the nearest] blue phone … and pushed the button. It was like it was rusted shut. I just thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of ridiculous. What if this really was an emergency, what if somebody was attacking me?’”

As a self-dubbed “big guy,” Marjoribanks describes not being afraid for himself so much as he is concerned about what the events of that night unveil and about how those more vulnerable than him could suffer.

Since then, all phones have been replaced, at a cost of $1.35 million to the university.

Allegations such as these — involving some of the facets of UBC’s campus security measures regarded by many as crucial to the safety measures at UBC — are disturbing at any point in the school year, but especially so in light of the numerous recent incidents on campus.

In a manner similar to the actions taken after the string of assaults that took place in 2013, the characteristics of campus security are once again under scrutiny — mostly by students emphatic about feeling safe on the grounds that they call work and home. While the incidences have seemingly halted for the time being, students are still complaining about the wait times for Safewalk, more blue phones not working properly and dark, empty regions of campus that seem like glaring red danger zones at night for a vulnerable individual. But is security on campus compromised? Are these complaints warranted? 

Here’s the good news — in early April, a team of three security professionals from various backgrounds came to both of the UBC campuses for one week total, examining every facet of safety. Louise Cowin, VP Students, expects the results of that review to come back in June with their publication to come soon after. In her current role, campus security falls under her portfolio.

“Truthfully, there's nothing on that scope, but we're really now waiting for the recommendations from the campus security review. That was the reason for that review," Said Cowin when asked about whether there are any initiatives to improve security on campus in progress. "We haven’t reviewed that unit — general notions of campus security — for a long time. Nobody actually knows how long. I imagine that there will be a number of initiatives coming from those recommendations.”

Looking at Campus Security

A university at night can be an unsettling place to walk around alone. Bushes, expansive buildings and random side-paths are practically unavoidable and you won’t find classrooms packed with students at 11 p.m.

On a campus as huge as that of the more than 400 hectares that make up Point Grey, keeping students safe and secure is a daunting task mainly undertaken by the four most visible services on campus: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Campus Security, Blue Phones and the student-operated AMS Safewalk program.

These four facets of campus security work in conjunction with each other to provide students with the most complete and thorough balloon of safety possible. While Campus Security is actually only responsible for the academic lands of the university, the RCMP’s area of coverage extends over the entire University Endowment Lands. However, it should be noted that the RCMP have many more resources available to them with which to thoroughly cover this additional area.

“The police are law enforcement, we are security. We are very different — we are non-emergency while [the RCMP] deals with emergencies,” said Barry Eccleton, head of Campus Security. While students can report criminal incidents to Campus Security, they will strongly encourage such reports to be passed on to the RCMP.

“We don’t investigate, we actually just take reports as they are provided to us,” said Eccleton.

The RCMP is responsible for any reported criminal events that happen on campus as well as the investigation aspect of cases. Examples are the six arrests spoken about in a recent press release, two of which took place on campus. They also can sometimes be seen patrolling the grounds, especially in times of incident or event.

“Our staffing levels are consistent for the most part with the exception of special events, when we will bring extra people in,” said Constable Ian Sim, community liaison officer for the RCMP. “The recent incidents of sexual assault resulted in us bringing in a number of extra police officers for dedicated foot patrols around student residences. It’s either event-related or problem-related.”

The UBC Campus Security team alone is made up of close to 100 staff, which includes patrol officers and administration. Eccleton would not disclose the number of patrol officers on campus at any given time, citing security reasons.

According to the Campus Security website, “the group consists of a 24/7 [communications operations] along with patrol officer teams who operate on bike, on foot and by vehicle. We monitor and respond to approximately 500 security alarms and other notification systems, including Campus Blue phones strategically located across campus and in our buildings.”

Blue Phones have been a staple on campus since the mid-nineties and were recently almost doubled in number — a good increased security measure on campus, even though it took three years to complete after the working group report that recommended the change. At that same time, each phone was equipped with a camera, which activates and begins recording only if someone presses the button on the phone.

Since March 2016, there are now a total of 40 blue phones around campus, with five being deferred until construction ends.

“We test all the phones twice a week,” said Eccleton. “There’s new software coming in about a week … and the software will indicate to us immediately when any phone ceases to be operational.”

As the fourth central component of UBC security, Safewalk is a student-operated service that typically operates from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. each night. Two walking teams and one car team — implemented after adjustments to the service in 2013 — patrol campus, picking up students and escorting them back to their homes on campus.

“If it’s really busy, often [Campus Security] will pick up the slack if we’re being totally swamped. But for the most part, we encourage people to call Safewalk first,” said Elizabeth Riegert, AMS Safewalk Coordinator.

Riegert noted that after the sexual assaults in 2013, the number of walks that Safewalk did each night increased from 15 to 20 to about 60 to 100, and that higher number has remained reasonably steady over the years, especially this past school year. She added that after the recent break-in on campus, numbers increased again for a week or so.

“The wait times can get upwards of 30 to 45 minutes, which is really unfair for the people who are calling because they’re afraid,” said Riegert. “We’re working on possibly adding a third team. Nothing's confirmed yet of course, but just for the main hub of campus.”

According to Riegert, the Safewalk team is also working towards new initiatives like their app, designed specifically to make their dispatch more effective.

What's changing?

Even though Cowin acknowledges that the university currently has no projects concerning safety, developments are slowly being made. The question is whether these developments are enough to keep up with the changing aspects of campus and the higher rates of assault-related crime that UBC has seen in the last few years. The last time the number significantly increased was in 2013. Back then, it was in turn paired with significantly increased media attention and significant changes were made.

In 2013, the Campus Safety Working Group was implemented by former UBC President Stephen Toope from 2006 to 2014 to conduct a review of campus safety following the sexual assault incidences.

“[Toope] and the executive thought that we as the university needed to get a better handle on our safety and the safety to the community that we provide and how it could get better,” said Cowin.

For one, they suggested an overhaul of the campus grounds to minimize environmental threats, which included trimming back bushes, increasing lighting in the dark areas of campus and maintaining clear sight lines including of secluded areas. The increase in the number of Blue Phones was another recommendation of the group.

The working group still exists and meets today, and is constantly looking at the existing security infrastructure and how to improve.

“We are looking at all possible future initiatives that we believe will make the community a safer place,” said Eccleton, a member of the working group. He described their recent project of creating a checklist of safety and security items that the security team recommends all building managers implement.

“We’re constantly evolving out of necessity,” said Constable Sim on behalf of the RCMP when asked about what has changed about the university RCMP force in recent years. “You have to keep up with the emerging trends and the emerging threats.”

Implementing more external cameras around campus has been a huge point of debate lately in the ongoing effort to improve security on campus. Currently, there are 35 buildings with surveillance cameras, including those at high traffic/risk areas such as dorms and the Museum of Anthropology, external cameras at the bus loop and incident-activated cameras on the Blue Phones. But other than that, no externally-located cameras are placed around campus.

“[Having] cameras strategically located at high-risk locations like student residences and libraries, those discussions are being heard,” said Eccleton. “We need to be very thoughtful in our response to request for further cameras. It has to be a good safety reason why we would need to attain those.”

While additional external cameras would provide a valuable safety feature to the university, there are concerns about what their implementation around campus would do to privacy. In December 2015, the new Policy 118 on cameras was approved by the Board of Governors after consultation, which outlines where cameras can be placed and how long the footage can be kept. According to the policy, signage must be posted to notify the public of camera positions and recorded imagery cannot be held for longer than 30 days.

“The recent string of assaults on campus have certainly raised that question [about cameras on campus]. Should they be placed outside of entrances of residence, should they be used outside of the entrances of libraries, those kinds of questions,” said Cowin. “I actually think that the recommendation from the security review might also point in that direction as well. I think we should look at those recommendations when they come in and ask ourselves again the question of safety and community appetite with respect to cameras."

“Cameras are just one safety tool and we need to emphasize the fact that all these different tools available to us on campus — including cameras — play a role,” said Eccleton in slight contrast.

Security and safety, especially on a plateau as huge and diverse as that of UBC, are complicated issues fueled by campus resources, environmental measures and security bodies. The same initiative that was shown after the 2013 assaults will hopefully emerge again following the release of the externally conducted security report to be released in June.

Students are key

When speaking about the lack of student opinion that fuels campus security initiatives, Eccleton acknowledges that security could be doing better in that department.

“That’s one of the areas we can perhaps get better at,” said Eccleton. “We want to create this welcoming environment where people feel comfortable coming up to us and expressing their needs or concerns. That’s an objective [of ours] — we need to get better at that.”

There is a section on the UBC Campus Security website that allows students to submit feedback to the team. Eccleton also sees the value in organizing future initiatives like forums for students and other community members to discuss safety and security.

While the behind-the-scenes workings of the university are never entirely clear, even after diligent research on the topic, a key sign of whether campus security is effective is whether students feel safe. Until students feel safe, the job is not complete.

Overall, Eccleton wants to emphasize the role that students play in their own safety and the safety of their peers.

“The overall message is just to look out for each other. At the end of the day, the university can provide lots of tools, but we also all play a role in looking out for each other because the safety of each other and the safety of our friends is very important,” he said.

“My personal view is that personal safety is an ongoing frame of mind, all the time. It’s not seasonal or dependent on a single arrest,” said Constable Sim.

Students are encouraged by campus security and the RCMP to put the following numbers into their phones for use when needed: Campus Security: 604-822-2222 (available 24 hours) / Student Health Service, UBC Hospital: 604-822-7011 / AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre: 604-827-5180 / UBC Student Counselling Services: 604-822-3811 / Sexual Assault Service, Vancouver General Hospital: 604-875-2881 (available 24 hours) / Women Against Violence Against Women crisis line: 604-255-6344 (available 24 hours) / Crisis Centre BC: 604-872-3311 (available 24 hours) / Access and Diversity: 604-822-5844