Public safety to install security cameras

By JAMES FINN

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been working on a plan over the past several months to update the college’s security systems before the end of this academic year.

The plan, introduced to the Middlebury community in an email on Sept. 24, will lead to the installation of an updated door swipe system and an undetermined number of stationary security cameras across campus — both measures scheduled to take effect this year. Administrators have also discussed the possibility of equipping public safety officers with wearable body cameras, but that measure has been only tentatively broached and will not be implemented this school year.

“Fundamentally, at the highest level, it’s about providing a safe environment for our students,” Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration David Provost said. 

Discussions about installing stationary security cameras have taken place continuously over the past decade, according to Provost, as peer institutions have incorporated such cameras in their campus security plans in increasing numbers. Colleges like Colby, Bowdoin, Saint Michaels and University of Vermont have used cameras in past years. As recently as 2015, however, Community Council voted down a proposal to install cameras at Middlebury. 

Administrators decided to proceed with a plan to install cameras this year because of a combination of community support — even the once-reluctant Community Council urged administrators to consider installing cameras in January — and a national climate that necessitated more stringent security measures. In the wake of several mass shootings nationwide in recent months, administrators began to consider ways to decrease the campus’ vulnerability, according to Provost. 

Provost, Public Safety Director Lisa Burchard and DPS are still in the preliminary stages of devising the new security plan. Detailed “best practices,” the exact number of cameras and their locations, and policies around storage of stationary camera footage have yet to be determined. 

Updated card access system

DPS has already begun upgrading the card access system used to regulate entrance into college buildings. DPS has been contracting with Minuteman, a Massachusetts-based security technologies firm, to add swipe pads to doors that haven’t had them in the past, like Old Chapel and the lower doors in Bicentennial Hall. Minuteman has previously installed security systems at Smith College, University of Massachusetts at Worcester and other Northeast colleges.

The new system will also give people who work in certain buildings jurisdiction over who can enter them with ID cards, removing some of that responsibility from DPS. DPS hopes to install the new Minuteman card access system by this December alongside the old system, before transitioning completely to the new system at the start of the spring semester. 

Students will still be able to use their existing Middlebury ID cards once the new system has been installed. 

“We don’t want people to think that the changes are going to suddenly overwhelm them,” Burchard said. “Most of the changes are going to happen within public safety.” 

Stationary cameras

The September community email said that stationary cameras will be installed “beginning this winter.” But that timeframe was a rough estimate. Realistically, Provost said, students should not expect to see stationary cameras on campus until April or May of 2020. Though DPS has a sum of $10,000 allocated from its operating budget for the installation of cameras this year, a larger budget is needed before the plan can be carried out in full. Next year’s budget will not be finalized until May, so it’s unlikely that many cameras will be installed before the end of the spring, according to Provost. 

DPS has yet to decide the exact locations and number of cameras. The Atwater parking lot, where cars have been broken into in recent months, is one site that Burchard identified as a likely candidate for an early-stage stationary camera — one that would be installed using the leftover $10,000. 

Minuteman, the firm commissioned to upgrade the card-access system, will also work on installation of stationary cameras. This will allow for what Burchard describes as an “integrated” system between cameras and swipe systems. 

Provost and Burchard acknowledged that the new plan would likely prompt student concerns about privacy, as discussions of cameras have done in the past. In 2015, for example, students voiced frustrations with plans to install cameras that emerged after a wave of vandalism.

Though they are still in the process of determining best practices, Burchard and Provost said definitively that camera footage would likely not be stored for more than 30 days. Stationary camera footage occupies huge amounts of space, Burchard said, and storing it for longer than a month would be impractical. She also said that camera footage will not be monitored 24/7, but will be consulted in the wake of a reported crime that is being investigated. 

“By no means are we suggesting at all that this flies in the face of privacy,” Provost said. “This is about spaces that are most vulnerable, from our information as well as students’.”

Following recent instances of campus vandalism in some dorms, some facilities staff have voiced support for the security cameras. 

“Hopefully this will cut down on vandalism,” Facilities Supervisor Wayne Hall said. “Over the last 10 years, my staff group has been reduced from 16 to 10. We have to cover more buildings than ever, and we don’t have time to fix things that don’t need to be fixed.” 

Body cameras

Burchard said plans to equip public safety officers with wearable body cameras are in the “the very beginning discussion phases,” and that it is unlikely the college will implement these plans in the near future. She said that her staff remains unsure of camera model and exact policies around data storage and use of cameras by officers.

If they are implemented, Burchard said, body cameras will be part of an effort to increase transparency between DPS officers and the campus community.  

“We want to improve the trust and transparency involved in the interactions when people have questions,” Burchard said.

Body cameras are implemented in many cases by police forces as tools to prevent racial profiling by officers. DPS officers have been accused of racial profiling in the past, such as when an officer alledegly racially profiled a non-white member of the faculty, according to a 2017 letter to the editor in The Campus.

Past camera controversies

Proposals to install stationary security cameras at Middlebury have surfaced repeatedly over the past two decades. 

The 2015 plan to install cameras resulted in a spate of campus vandalism, according to a May 2015 report in The Campus. Graffiti sprayed around campus, some of it in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, had ignited a debate over whether or not to install cameras. In response to the proposed security response, some students spray-painted “no camera” graffiti at various locations. 

An op-ed submitted by Beyond the Green in 2014 raised attention to the “hyper-policing” of minority people on and off Middlebury’s campus, urging students to consider who society teaches them to be worthy of policing. 

“Certain bodies are already marked as scary and criminal before they have been ‘caught’ committing a crime: Black and Latino bodies have historically been watched on this campus, mirroring how they are hyper-policed in the ‘outside world,’” the piece reads. 

The article goes on to recount an instance of a non-white, gender non-conforming student being confronted by Public Safety. The piece’s authors suggest that the student was confronted because their identity made them seem to have “something to hide,” arguing that  “surveillance reinforces normative identities by making deviance ever visible.” Installation of stationary security cameras would continue to perpetuate such systems of oppression, the piece argues. 

In an editorial published in April 2015, The Campus editorial board pointed to a surge in thefts as a reason for the installation of cameras, arguing that “there is a large divide between a police state and installing surveillance cameras to protect students’ belongings.”

Hall, the facilities director, remembered that when he was a member of staff council in the late 1990s, the Middlebury Openly Gay Alliance (which has since been disbanded) posted a bulletin board that was defaced several times. Staff Council discussed placing a camera in the location of the bulletin board, but student protests ended up shuttering the plan. 

“The student responded was, ‘Big Brother’s watching. We don’t want it’,” Hall said.

Peer institutions

Many of Middlebury’s peer institutions have been using stationary security cameras for years. But few of them equip safety officers with wearable body cameras. 

Bowdoin College has had a stationary camera system in place since 2000. A 2005 report on Bowdoin’s security surveillance network describes a system of 50 CVC-GANZ high-resolution digital color cameras that store video data for up to five weeks before deletion. The cameras were an “invaluable tool” in solving on-campus crimes, Bowdoin’s then-director of security said. 

Colby College was one of the first schools to equip its public safety officers with wearable body cameras, according to Burchard. A July 2017 Patrol Procedures Summary for Colby’s security staff states that “body camera footage will be reviewed and interviews will be conducted by the Dean’s Office” in the event of a Colby student failing to show a security officer their ID upon request. 

Burchard and Provost said that as plans for both stationary cameras and wearable body cameras develop, students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion through Community Council meetings and other forums. 

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