Can I feel safe and secure going to school in New Haven?

For years, Yale has wrestled with two competing reputations: an internationally renowned academic institution situated in a city seen as representative of the social ills facing America’s urban centers. But while city officials still face challenges in making New Haven safe, the past 15 years have shown significant decreases in the city’s crime rate.

Over that period, crime in downtown New Haven and on the Yale campus has dropped 60 percent, thanks to the advent of improved security services and access control. The streets of New Haven are safer today, political science professor Douglas Rae said, because of an effort started in 1990 to expand community policing by former New Haven Mayor John Daniels.

“Major crime is down by about half from its crest in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” said Rae, a specialist in urban development. “Both Yale streets and downtown streets are essentially as safe as any streets in America if you follow common sense procedures.”

But New Haven crime statistics have been on the rise for the past two years, reversing the decreasing trends of the previous decade. The crime statistics for 2004 released by the New Haven Police Department this winter showed an increase in city crime from 8,199 incidents reported in 2002 and 9,010 in 2003 to 9,652 last year. The number of homicides in New Haven rose from eight in 2003 to 15 in 2004. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has announced initiatives to examine the root of the increases.

The substantial overall decrease in crime over the past 15 years is largely a result of community-based policing, Yale Police Lt. Michael Patten said. University Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said the city and the University have joined together to tackle problems surrounding economic development. These efforts, she said, have significantly improved safety in New Haven.

“There is more activity and more street life at night,” she said. “Restaurants and shops are open and people are coming and going.”

Patten said theft is the most common type of crime at Yale currently. However, New Haven is a city and other types of crime do occur.

“This is not Princeton,” Patten said. “Yale is not in the woods.”

This year, major crimes affecting Yale students have included the assault of a student with glass bottles and an armed robbery, both taking place on Edgewood Avenue. The common thread linking such crimes is location: both occurred in off-campus housing areas. While Yale cannot patrol all of New Haven, specific security measures have been taken on-campus to protect students, Patten said.

“In 1992, Yale doubled the size of the police department,” he said. “There are blue phones and access controls at the residential colleges, which came into being in the last 10 or 12 years.”

In addition to these measures, Yale also offers a program called “2-WALK”, which students can call at any time to have an officer walk them home, as well as a 24-hour minibus service. Although these services do not reach all off-campus students, the YPD works closely with the New Haven Police to decrease off-campus crime, Patten said.

To ensure safety, Yale expects students to keep entrances locked, particularly gates and primary entryway doors in residential colleges, Highsmith said.

While alarming crimes do occur on occasion, crime statistics from the greater New Haven area tell a reassuring story. New Haven Police spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester said the number of murders in New Haven has dropped from 31 in 1990 to less than 10 in recent years, while the number of robberies has been cut by more than half. Since 1990, serious crime in New Haven has steadily decreased. Patten said the YPD’s number one priority is to target crime against persons – robberies and purse snatches – and that this type of violence has been decreased by half.

Despite these statistics, Yale has still maintained a reputation as a university housed in a dangerous city, although Highsmith said that characterization is merely a “great urban myth.”

“I don’t know why people think that,” she said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, there were high crime rates in New Haven, but there were high crime rates everywhere.”

Current students said they were concerned about safety when they arrived on campus.

“I must admit that before coming to Yale I was worried about crime in New Haven,” Susan Chan ’05 said. “And while there are certainly incidences of crime that occur in New Haven, I do not feel that it is any worse here than it would be in any other city.”

Although New Haven crime statistics show a trend of decreasing violence, they should not send a message to students that danger does not exist in the city, University administrators said. Rather, the most important thing for students to do is to use common sense, Highsmith said. She said a lot of the crimes that happen on campus are “crimes of opportunity,” which stem mainly from careless behavior of students.

“When everyone is focusing on getting work done, some students will leave a laptop on a table, for example,” she said. “We ask students to use precautions and the security services we provide.”

Patten said students must realize that security measures exist for a reason and that defeating them only raises the risk of a problem occurring.

But safety at Yale is not only due to police efforts; students play a big role in decreasing crime in the Yale community. Highsmith said a student security coordinator in each residential college works with the Yale director of security education.

“We ask students to use simple precautions and security services,” Highsmith said. “I assume people lock their doors at night in most places. Students here should do so as well.”

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