A sign at one of the entrances at the University of Southern California reminds people they’ll be asked for their IDs after dark. It’s just one of the many layers of security added about a year ago in reaction to gunfire that erupted at a Halloween party on campus.
The closing of the campus perimeter gates at night followed the extra policing that was ordered in spring 2012 because of the shocking deaths of two graduate students shot to death in a nearby neighborhood.
This is Nwopur Joshi’s first semester at USC; she's a graduate student from India. She heard about the fatal shooting of the two graduate students from China before she started classes.
“First, we thought that it would be really unsafe,” she said. “But they’ve been checking the IDs after some time in the evening, so now I don’t feel scared.”
Only USC staff, faculty and students with identification are allowed on campus after 9 p.m. Visitors must have a pass or ask for permission. The doors to residence halls have fingerprint scanners that only grant entry to students who live in that building. All on-campus events must be registered with the university and no outside vendors can host parties at the campus.
In addition to the 115 officers at the university’s Department of Public Safety, there are 143 unarmed officers that are called Community Service Officers that stand guard at high traffic areas around campus.
After the two homicides in April of last year, the Los Angeles Police Department doubled the number of officers assigned to the University Park Task Force (UP Task Force) by adding 15 more to the group, which is specifically charged with patrolling the USC area.
The University Park Task Force patrols a larger perimeter outside the USC campus. Its boundary is marked by the I-10 Freeway to the north, the 110 Freeway to east, Martin Luther King Blvd to south and Normandie Ave. to the west. The additional officers help cover the night shift. The two graduate students killed last year were attacked around 1 a.m.
“One of the things the Task Force was designed to do was to increase the visibility on the perimeter and in-and-around the USC area,” said USC’s DPS police chief John Thomas.
USC and LAPD officers train together. The two departments –along with a representative from the L.A. City Attorney's Office and other security contractors – meet every Thursday to review crime statistics and trends. The relationship between the university and municipal police departments is seamless, said Thomas.
All radios worn by all officers can be connected to a 24-hour police dispatch center at USC that monitors the LAPD Southwest police station’s radio frequency. The dispatch center has a wall of 72 monitors that are streaming live video from any of 170 surveillance cameras. Most are mounted in a box-like boundary roughly from Vermont Ave. to Adams Blvd. to Figueroa St. to Exposition Blvd.
“If there’s a crime in progress, all these cameras move so you can scan back and forth,” said Sgt. Jonathan Pinto of LAPD’s University Park Task Force.
Pinto said when a call comes in about a crime in the USC area, UP Task Force officers can have a USC dispatch center staffer review real-time street camera to get suspect description.
The university’s resources committed to crime-fighting surveillance technology usually outstretches the LAPD’s budget. The USC-LAPD collaboration allows the city’s policing efforts to expand.
For example, USC has more than 60 license plate readers that send scanned plates to the state’s Department of Justice to check for stolen vehicles or cars involved in criminal cases. Any vehicle driving on campus has its license plate scanned and read. If the LAPD or another municipal police department is searching for a certain license plate, USC DPS can scan its database for the wanted vehicle.
Danny Estevez, a resident in the West Adams neighborhood, pointed to a lamplight on 27th Street. There you can see gray boxes at the top and black license plate readers in a perch over the street. He thinks there have been more cameras installed.
The modest homes, mostly rented by Latino families, used to be considered an area too far from campus for students to live. But Estevez said the students are finding housing further away from campus and landlords can earn more by renting to them.
“They get like $800 per student versus, you know, maybe $1,000 for a whole family,” he said.
Even with more electronic eyes watching the streets, Estevez says USC parties attract lots of young people, whether they are students or not. The alleged shooter at last year’s Halloween party on campus didn’t attend classes at USC.
“Sometimes the trouble is from inside of here,” he said. “Sometimes it comes from outside to make it look like it’s the people from here.
That’s true of the suspects charged with the double murder of the graduate students. One of the two men ordered this week to stand trial for those homicides was living in a foster home in Palmdale; the other listed his home address in Watts.
Sgt. Pinto said, for the most part, criminals aren’t necessarily targeting people from USC, but sometimes students find themselves in the middle of a situation.
“I’d say probably a majority of our victims are not USC related,” said Pinto.
As for USC, its crime statistics show an overall decline in the number of crimes since 2008 for those that occurred on campus and in the neighboring areas off-campus that the DPS responds to.
“There’s this danger anywhere you go to a university,” said journalism student Cynthia Ruiz. “There’s a lot of students, you never know what’s going to happen."
Some students and university staff have questioned the statistics, specifically the number of sexual assault cases reported, saying the university mishandled those cases. USC officials last week admitted they did under report cases in 2010 and 2011 due to mistakes in evaluating exactly where the crimes occurred.
Over the last year, USC has solidified its relationship with the LAPD by first developing a stronger partnership with the UP Task Force and secondly choosing to hire a new DPS police chief that has ties to the Los Angles Police Department. The university has expanded its technological reach by installing more cameras and license plate readers as well as staffing its dispatch center with people to monitor the cameras around-the-clock.
Still, university officials say a shocking crime and alarming headlines can prove just how vulnerable the notion of security is.