In recent months, Pomona College administrators have discussed joining a growing number of colleges and universities nationwide that have implemented video surveillance systems on campus to combat crime, provoking some student criticism surrounding the idea.
Although Pomona currently has some cameras in places near bike racks and in computer labs, its video management system is one of the least extensive among the Claremont Colleges, where security cameras in public areas are more prevalent.
“Once we had these thefts, we decided, okay, we can’t wait any longer, we’ve got to do this,” said James Marchant, Pitzer College Dean of Students. “It’s just the nature of law enforcement nowadays. Anything that’s on video is a lot easier to capture and go back after the fact and identify who it is.… This is the way organizations are going… it’s the age we’re in.”
“So far we’ve received nothing but positive responses from our community about these cameras,” he added.
Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna College (CMC) both have video cameras all around campus on outdoor building entrances, parking lots, and other public spaces. Scripps College only uses video cameras in its parking garage, according to Dean of Students Rebecca Lee. Harvey Mudd College (HMC) has security cameras on outdoor entrances in the academic and administrative areas of campus, but not around residence halls.
CMC Dean of Students Jefferson Huang agreed with Marchant that video cameras are a growing trend among colleges and other institutions nationwide, and that a lack of such resources has the potential to become a liability for schools when incidents occur.
“In 2011, it makes you look more negligent not to have any video cameras. To have none is a problem,” Huang said.
Both CMC and Pitzer are updating their existing cameras and adding new cameras to their campuses to keep up to date with the latest technology and to expand the areas under surveillance. However, Huang pointed out that Pomona’s video management plans were much more extensive in terms of volume than CMC’s, which he speculated might be the result of Pomona's larger acreage and higher number of entrance doors.
Huang also noted that Pomona’s security system would be slightly different from the cameras at CMC, in that they would be wired to Campus Safety so that live images could be pulled up on a screen in the event of an incident. That way, suspects involved in illegal activity could be tracked more efficiently. CMC’s system, on the other hand, is set up so that video is recorded and stored for review only after the fact.
In December 2010, a Scripps student left her unlocked bike in a bike rack outside of Pitzer’s Scott Hall while she went into the building for a few minutes. When she returned, the bike—which the student reported to be worth $8,000, according to Director of Campus Safety Shahram Ariane—was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, a security camera outside the building had recorded a man walking up to the building and riding away on the bike. The man’s image was distributed to the Claremont Police Department (CPD), which was subsequently able to identify the same man loading bikes into the back of a van and apprehend him.
At Pitzer and CMC, where video cameras are most prevalent, student government leaders said that video surveillance generally does not affect students negatively, and that their presence has not been a major point of discussion or debate among students.
“The school has no interest in monitoring the students and being like a police force,” said Pitzer Student Senate Chair Alex Smith '11. “If I was doing something wrong, I would still have to be caught in the traditional way. Marchant agreed.
“We made it clear that it’s not to enforce college policy,” he said of the campus’s cameras. “It’s for criminal activity only. It’s in the language of the communications sent out to the college, that I’m not here to bust kids for smoking or drinking. Only if there’s criminal activity will we review it, and only with the approval of the vice president of the college.”
Marchant explained that Pitzer’s cameras are not actively monitored, but they are reviewed after the fact when an incident occurs. The same is the case for all other campuses. Smith said that since the system is not active and is only used in the case of security breaches, they seem to be “largely irrelevant to everyday life except for when you need them.”
CMC student body president Chris Jones ’11 echoed this sentiment but added that he felt many students at CMC were unaware of the video camera system. According to Jones, this could be the result of CMC’s long tradition of video security, which predates Dean Huang, who joined the college in 1995.
“I think there’s frankly a lack of awareness,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s concern about the existence of cameras. Whether there should be, I don’t know. I think if awareness became greater, it would definitely be talked about more.”
But Jones explained that since there has not been a history of cameras being used to enforce drinking or other policy infringements, cameras have generally not been an issue.
“I think that as long as it’s a tool for safety and not a tool for rule enforcing, students will have less of a problem with it,” he said.
Huang said that the CMC cameras can and have been used to discipline students for policy violations, but mostly not for drinking violations.
“Could that be used to implicate you? The answer is yeah, actually, it could. I think it’s just understood that that’s just one of the rules of the game here,” Huang said.
“I can think of a situation where some [students] broke into Collins. I can think of a situation where people were stealing from us with a shopping cart,” Huang said of past instances where cameras have been used. “In both cases, they led to disciplinary responses.”
But Huang said alcohol policy enforcement was not out of the scope of the video cameras.
“I suppose if it were drinking and something that I thought was more serious, then we might pull video—if it were, obviously, a sexual assault, a fight, a robbery or someone going in and out of rooms,” he said. “But not just for drinking period, no. I’m not watching just that.”
Pomona Vice President and Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum responded to questions about whether video cameras at Pomona would be used for non-violence-related college policy violations.
“Just think: What would happen if instead of watching the video, [a dean] was actually just standing there face to face—we should go with those expectations,” she said.
Harvey Mudd’s Assistant Vice President for Facilities and Operations Theresa Lauer said that HMC’s practices were similar to those of CMC. Security cameras at HMC are not installed in residence hall areas and are only used to address security problems when incidents are reported.
Marchant said that Pitzer’s video cameras were installed about a year and a half ago after a series of thefts in administrative offices and safes, but that it did not become a point of discussion within the student government, although they were made aware of the plans. According to Marchant, the implementation was ultimately an administrative decision and one that he felt was not a community decision because it concerned safety.
Huang said that CMC students have benefitted from the presence of video cameras because they have helped students who were robbed resolve those incidents, and because they allow facilities like the fitness center to be open and accessible later than they would be without cameras.
An intended benefit of the cameras that has yet to be verified is the effectiveness of video surveillance in preventing crime at the 5Cs, which can be difficult to measure. An important aspect of the system is the visual deterrents to crime provided by the cameras and prominent signs warning people that they are under video surveillance on the premises. However, aside from the bike theft at Scott Hall and the incident of student misconduct in the CMC dining hall, there are few other concrete success stories resulting from the cameras, according to deans and student leaders. And even when video cameras were used, Campus Safety officers acknowledged the role of fortunate timing in finding perpetrators.
Director of Campus Safety Shahram Ariane referred to the Scott Hall bicycle theft in a previous e-mail to TSL.
“I must say that in this case, we were very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time,” Ariane said.