A walk across Elon University’s campus in the middle of the night is never completely pitch-black, thanks in large part to the 31 blue light emergency response systems that illuminate the darker reaches of campus.
The blue lights, which cost $5,000 to install and have yearly electricity fees, are a necessary crime deterrent on campus, according to Dennis Franks, Elon University police chief. The systems function on a distress button that immediately calls police to the scene, with the goal of a two-minute response time.
Though the blue lights have been pressed accidentally twice and have never been used for a real emergency in the two years since Franks has been at Elon, he said statistics can’t accurately reflect the number of potential crimes the system has prevented.
“To me, it’s a good deterrent that if something happens around those blue lights, the person knows they have access and can get emergency services there quickly,” Franks said.
Even in places without blue lights, though they are few and far between, someone is usually watching. In a move to increase campus security and safety, the university, under the guidance of the Elon University Police Department and others, approved a substantial increase in the number of cameras around campus, from just over 200 to more than 300 cameras this year.
The department maintains a 24/7 call center in its Oaks area office. The police precinct also features a video dashboard that flicks between the 300-odd cameras around campus, many of which are located in parking lots and other areas off the beaten path.
Libertarian and personal-privacy advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has an Elon University chapter, have expressed concerns that more and more cameras around college campuses are invading privacy, particularly when the locations of the cameras aren’t disclosed to students.
Those same cameras led to the recent arrest of Colin Mahoney, 31, the Chapel Hill resident charged with exposing himself to a female student Feb. 18 near the intersection of O’Kelly and Haggard Avenues. The Elon University Police Department performed an extensive analysis of all of the cameras in the vicinity to catch Mahoney on tape.
Police officers were able to capture a partial image of the silver Nissan truck Mahoney drove, and from there the department collaborated with the North Carolina License and Theft Bureau to track Mahoney down. He was arrested in his Chapel Hill home Feb. 27 — an example of “inter-department cooperation,” Franks said.
The indecent exposure incident is a rare instance of crime at Elon — the 2010 exposure incidents notwithstanding. In 2012, the university reported 10 instances of burglary, where a person breaks into a residence, and no robberies, when a person forcibly steals from another, a testament to the effectiveness of the blue lights and cameras, according to Franks.
Elon University Chief of Security Scott Jean said the families of prospective students are comforted by the low crime figures and the presence of blue lights.
“It’s a peace of mind for family members to come and see that I know my student, though they have a cell phone, they also have this other option,” Jean said.
Crime prevention’s unkown cost
Freshman Elizabeth Ferry said the return on the cameras and blue lights is worth a slight intrusion to student privacy.
“I’ve never felt unsafe on campus, and there’s a reason for that,” Ferry said. “It’s a good idea in case someone, someday eventually needs to use the system in a situation where they’re unsafe.”
Of course, almost everyone walking around Elon has a cellphone, said Chris Fulkerson, assistant vice president of technology, but cellphones don’t prevent crime — they can only respond to it.
“Most people do have cellphones,” he said. “That’s a fact. But they’re a responsive mechanism, which is fine, but they don’t serve the same purpose as blue lights. They’re not a preventative measure. We’re trying to stop crimes before they happen, not after.”
But freshman Zach Layne said the blue lights may be another example of misguided funding with good intentions.
“Blue lights just don’t seem as necessary as one might think anymore,” Layne said. “Everyone has a cellphone these days. Where else could we spend that money?”
Fulkerson pointed out what a small percentage of the university’s yearly budget blue lights take up, and he said leftover money in the budget should be invested directly back into the safety of students.
“When we’re looking at the budget, and when we see there’s some funding left, we first ask ourselves how this money can best serve the students,” he said. “When we can, we try to increase security measures throughout all of campus, from dark parking lots to more remote areas.”
Blue light number 31, installed at the beginning of this school year, lights up Loy Farm, the future site of a sustainable living community that has been entirely student built so far.
The farm, across from the intramural fields and next to the Magnolia Cemetery of Elon, currently plays host to environmental studies courses. With the introduction of a solar farm in a nearby meadow, the Loy Farm will house permanent student residents.
Even here, on the outskirts of campus, cell reception is strong. AT&T and Verizon phones — two of the most popular service providers to Elon students — alike can send and receive texts and calls on the farm. Chief Franks said the farm is the perfect place for a blue light system – isolated from the rest of campus and poorly-lit at night.
“These students are going to be living and working far away from everything, from us here at the police station, and they deserve the same protection and feeling of safety as anyone else,” he said.
Sophomore Christian Smoke, a student-worker on the farm, said while he is “surely an advocate of safety precautions,” the blue light system installed at the farm may be a bit over-the-top.
“In the case of blue light systems, I believe they might be a little more than necessary, given the nature of modern technology,” he said. “Almost everyone has a cell phone that would provide a far simpler and quicker solution to emergency situations.”