Gun violence prompts NIU response

By Jessie Kern

DeKALB — The recent spark in gun-related incidents on and around campus inspired a second community meeting during which students, campus officials and local law enforcement addressed safety concerns and initiatives.

NIU employees including acting President Lisa Freeman and at least 40 students attended the event Monday at Fanatico, 1215 Blackhawk Road. The goal of the discussion was not only to inform students about the safety efforts being made by the university and local law enforcement, but also to provide a platform for students to express concerns, ask questions and provide officials with feedback.

The concern has arisen as a result of the seven incidents of shots-fired and three additional incidents involving handguns, including an aggravated assault at Stevenson Towers Oct. 26, that have been reported through NIU’s safety bulletins this semester.

Branden Astorga-Rollins, junior Spanish Language major, lives on the 800 block of Russell Road and said three of the shootings that occurred in the past two months were visible from his window.

“We’re kind of having to make decisions about whether or not we can even patronize businesses in our neighborhood,” Astorga-Rollins said. “We have to drive out on the other side of town to get groceries now because we don’t want to walk around.”

Dean of Students Kelly Wesener-Michael expressed concern for the wellbeing of off-campus students like Astorga-Rollins, as many of the living options that attract students, like Greek Row, are in close proximity to the locations of recent shootings.

“Personally, I’ll be trying to come out continually and see if we can push people to solve these problems,” Astorga-Rollins said. “I think us as a community will just have to watch and be vigilant of the actions that NIU and the police departments are taking.”

Students living off-campus who are feeling unsafe can contact Student Affairs to explore the options available to address their concerns.

“If this is becoming really disruptive to your day-to-day life and you want to think about potentially relocating and living in the residence halls, again, contact our office,” said Wesener-Michael.

After learning of NIU and local law enforcement’s efforts in responding to the gun violence, students were able to share their opinions about the incidents.

During the discussion, students expressed concerns about having police presence in the area during the day but not at night.

DeKalb Police Department responded to the concern with an explanation of their weekly crime analysis, which helps department officials to be strategic in where they send their forces.

John Petragallo, DeKalb Police Department deputy chief, said the crime analysis focuses on patterns and trends in their data based on factors like the days of the week crime occurs, the time of day and the season to discover what areas are being targeted.

“We staff our streets in accordance with that, so you might not see them all the time, but I promise they’re there,” Petragallo said.

As a result of such initiatives, Petragallo said several arrests have been made in connection with the gun-related crimes.

“Both our patrol division and our investigations divisions are working with different types of technology to help bring some of these cases to resolution, and it’s working,” Petragallo said. “We have a lot of promising leads.”

Despite the progress being made on the various cases, both NIU and DeKalb Police Departments encouraged students to call law enforcement about safety concerns and potential tips.

“If [students] feel unsafe and they’re out and they feel fearful for some reason, call the police,” Petragallo said. “Trust their instincts if they think something is wrong; please call. If they witness something, if they see something suspicious, please call; please call.”

Petragallo said university and DeKalb officials will continue to facilitate these community discussions in an effort to address the safety issues, though the date for the next event has not been determined. Information about any future meetings will be included in Wesener-Michael’s weekly campus-wide emails.

Astorga-Rollins said although the problem has not yet been solved, he is encouraged by the responses of police and NIU officials.

“At the end of the day, it’s important that each and every one of you have the emotional energy to focus on your studies and be successful students,” Wesener-Michael said.

University Responds with Action

As of Friday, university officials decided to lock exterior residence hall doors 24 hours a day after the altercation in Stevenson Towers that resulted in a non-university-affiliated male displaying a gun. Previously, residence hall doors locked at 11 p.m. and reopened at 7 a.m., but with this change, access will only be permitted with a valid OneCard.

Additionally, NIU and DeKalb Police Departments have increased the amount of patrolling officers on and around campus, according to a Nov. 1 campus-wide email from Freeman.

In conjunction with this increase in patrols, a newly positioned NIU Police Department mobile command unit will also increase police presence and enhance police ability to respond to crime.

These measures being taken by local law enforcement reflect what NIU Police Chief Tom Phillips said is a prioritization of addressing campus safety concerns.

“I will always weigh on the side of safety of our students, so if I have to make, or with my colleagues, we have to make instant decisions to make sure you’re safe, we will do that,” said NIU Police Chief Tom Phillips.

Additional stops and an expansion of the HuskieLine Bus evening hours is also underway as a preventative measure to get students to their destinations safely. Information about these changes will soon be available on the bus line’s website, according to the email.

Freeman expressed a hope to make students feel safe despite the recent gun violence in the email.

“It doesn’t matter whether you live or work on- or off-campus,” Freeman said in the email. “NIU is your home, and we all want it to be safe. We are committed to each of you and encourage you to seek the resources you need.”