Police urge USF students to be alert, not apathetic

TAMPA — When reports of a gunman on the University of South Florida campus erupted last month, Gabby Long's parents worried about her safety.

They, like their daughter, a freshman at USF, had received text messages from the school alerting students of possible danger.

But, Long, 18, brushed off their concerns.

"When the gun thing happened, there were people checking our IDs before letting us into the dorm, so I knew it was pretty safe," Long said. "They were taking care of us."

The incident didn't linger on her mind, she said.

The tendency to dismiss safety scares is common among students on campus, said USF police Lt. Christopher Daniel. And it concerns campus police.

"It's my personal perspective that people on campus believe the university is kind of an island and is immune from the actions going on around us, when in fact we are part of what is going on around us," Daniel said. "Not everyone who walks across this campus is a person who belongs here."

USF, next to a neighborhood long plagued by a high crime rate, is bound to experience a spillover effect, said Cesar Hernandez, a community engagement officer at the University Area Community Development Center.

"People were alarmed at the fact there was a gunman on campus," Hernandez said, "but there's gunmen walking around this community every day and there's nobody alarmed about that. This is how people are living in this neighborhood on a daily basis."

The University Area Community is 3.4 square miles west of USF. It has been nicknamed Suitcase City because of its large transient population. More than 85 percent of people living in the area are renters, he said.

"Many will say that is a cause for a lot of crime, making it a hub for criminals," Hernandez said, "but it's essentially a hub for the best victims."

Those victims include a large population of Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants, he said. Most don't open bank accounts and instead carry cash, making them easy targets who often don't report the crimes against them.

There have been many efforts over the years to curb crime in the area, and some of them relate directly to campus safety. USF police actively work with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to stay abreast of crime patterns, and the college's housing department helps students find safe off-campus apartments, Daniel said.

Outside campus, Hernandez is working on gaining funding for a crime prevention project he hopes to implement that he says has lowered crime in hard-hit areas of cities like Chicago.

But without drastic changes, Hernandez anticipates that the episodes of crime flooding onto campus and in nearby apartments will only escalate.

Just two weeks before the reported gunman, a man went on a violent rampage at several apartment complexes near USF, raping several students and holding others at gunpoint.

Charlie "Chris" Bates, 24, spurred a widespread search by law enforcement and was eventually killed in a shootout with Tampa police officers after a car chase ended near Interstate 4.

Even with the direct effect on several students, attitudes among those on campus didn't seem to change, said Alex Kovalenko, a USF freshman who commutes from Wesley Chapel.

"At first, everyone was freaking out, especially the freshmen," Kovalenko said. "But in a week everyone went back to normal."

The 18-year-old did notice an increased police presence across campus, he said.

But Daniel said those police efforts can only go so far in the fight against crime. He noted that students have a bevy of tools at their disposal that they are not using very widely. Those include using after-dark escorts across campus provided by the school's SAFE Team and reporting suspicious activity.

"We can increase our visibility and step up our marketing, but the rest comes down to the end user," Daniel said. "We can make tools available, but someone has to use it."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

Police urge USF students to be alert, not apathetic 10/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 11, 2013 1:14pm]

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