City to survey West Campus lighting problems, area safety

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

It’s no secret that West Campus has issues with lighting. At least, that’s what campus safety groups have spent the last year trying to convince city officials — and it looks like they’re listening.

On Thursday, advocates for West Campus safety improvements scored a win when members of the Austin City Council unanimously voted to authorize an extensive study of how lighting affects crime in the area, which saw 34 burglaries in residencies last year.

“Its pretty clear that there is an ongoing public safety problem in West Campus,” said Jason Stanford, communications director for Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who sponsored Thursday’s resolution. “People feel unsafe walking home in dimly lit areas, and we share their concerns.”

The Council’s vote follows a year-long back-and-forth between the city and campus safety groups, particularly SafeHorns, a stakeholder group consisting of students, parents and local business groups advocating for safety improvements following the death of dance freshman Haruka Weiser last year.

Outreach began to take root in March, when SafeHorns presented the mayor’s office with findings from an assessment they conducted of student opinions over how much — if at all — campus safety had changed.

Many students named West Campus as an area that still requires attention to alleviate public safety issues, particularly with its lack of quality lighting and large transient population, SafeHorns Communications Director Joell Sullivan-McNew said.

“Tourists are oftentimes treated better than these students,” Sullivan-McNew said. “I’m tired of the mentality that students only live here for four years and that they are expected to come here and just deal with it basically, that this is part of you living in West Campus…. We have to get real about our situation as a city.”

While every part of the city is different, some are far more well-lit than others, and West Campus is largely not one of them, said William Harvey, West Campus district representative for APD. Harvey said the large amount of dimly-lit areas allow people to frequent West Campus streets relatively unnoticed, and with its heavy foot traffic, it’s hard to say who is doing what at night.

“Put yourself in the place of a criminal: If you’re out looking for something to steal, would you prefer to be in a place that’s dark or more well-lit?” said Harvey, who has worked in community outreach in West Campus for more than 10 years.

However, lighting is only a small part of the complex problem in West Campus, Harvey said. Students also need to be more aware of their surroundings, taking extra time to take belongings out of their vehicles and lock their doors behind them.

“That would go a long way to preventing a lot of the crimes that happen there,” Harvey said.

Sullivan-McNew said the next step after the assessment is to address the area’s other problems by installing more cameras and increasing the police presence throughout West Campus.

“We’re happy at least someone is doing something,” said Sullivan-McNew, who thanked the city for its action on the issue. “This is a good first step, but it’s interesting that it takes so much advocating from SafeHorns for students to get this kind of support.”
The city manager should implement necessary lighting fixes “as soon as practicable,” according to the resolution, and will return to the Council with an update on the study’s progress and recommendations by Aug. 15.