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Urban Woes Regularly Spill Onto UT Campus

A review of more than three months of UT-Austin police logs shows campus police routinely dealing with traffic issues, drug crimes and homeless people unrelated to the university.

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The high-profile, on-campus murder of University of Texas at Austin freshman Haruka Weiser earlier this month brought parents' attention to a longtime reality for the UT Police Department: As a public school in the middle of a bustling city, the UT campus provides no haven from the realities of urban life. That includes drunk drivers, drug sales and a regular influx of Austin's homeless population seeking shelter.

A survey of the past few months of campus police activity underscores the point. Between January 1 and April 7, UT-Austin police dealt with 165 crimes involving individuals unaffiliated with the university, according to daily reports reviewed by the Tribune.

In many of those incidents, UTPD officers worked with outside agencies — most often the Austin Police Department, which has jurisdiction over Guadalupe Street — the campus' western border and a central hub of student activity. 

According to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey, those reports paint an incomplete picture of crime on the section of Guadalupe Street that runs alongside campus, known locally as the Drag. Posey said underreporting likely results because students don't think to call 911 or believe police aren't needed. 

"We are desperately trying to get students to dial 911 every single time they're accosted, verbally assaulted or physically assaulted by a homeless person — or by anyone," Posey told the Tribune. "That gives us data. We hear story after story after story of incidents happening to students, but they don't call the police.

The incident reports obtained by the Tribune vary widely in nature and scope. Roughly 14 percent dealt with driving-related crimes such as driving while intoxicated or without a license. There were more than 50 incidents of criminal trespass. As happens throughout the city, there were bike thefts, shoplifting charges and drug-related activity. 

But the reports reveal some patterns, many of which UTPD and APD officers have acknowledged as they work to assess and improve campus safety in the wake of the sexual assault and suffocation death of Weiser. The 18-year-old dance freshman was walking to her dorm when she was attacked and killed in early April. A 17-year-0ld homeless youth, Meechaiel Criner, was arrested and charged with her murder.

Here are the major trends apparent from an analysis of more than three months of UTPD police reports: 

  • The popularity of the illegal synthetic marijuana drug known as K2: Between the beginning of January and early April, UTPD officers identified 27 incidents that involved K2 in some capacity, including a drug deal on Jan. 28 involving more than 21 grams of the drug and almost $1,000. The overwhelming majority of incidents involving K2 occurred along the Drag. Earlier this month, UTPD Chief David Carter acknowledged the drug was an issue. "K2 is not something you see in the student population," Carter told the Tribune. "But we definitely do see it in the rise of the West Campus homeless population."
  • A high concentration of crimes at the intersection of 23rd Street and the Drag: The intersection, which is a break between storefronts, has long been home to the 23rd Street Artists' Market, an open-air collection of various booths selling jewelry and other homemade offerings. The area, which is owned by the city and under APD's jurisdiction, has also long seen a significant homeless population.
  • A high number of criminal trespass incidents across campus: Every month, officers found sleeping individuals with no UT connection outside campus buildings and dormitories. Once in January, officers found an intoxicated man sleeping in the second-floor women's restroom of an academic building. The UT-Austin main campus spans more than 431 acres, and President Greg Fenves has reiterated his commitment to keeping the campus open to the public. "We are a public university. We are going to maintain an open campus," Fenves said earlier this month. Walls or locked gates would be "actually inimical to a public institution," he added.
  • Repeat trespassers: UTPD reports show frequent encounters with non-UT individuals who had previously been issued multiple criminal trespass warnings. On Feb. 12, officers found a man lying in an alleyway near the Artists' Market who had 23 outstanding agency arrest warrants for "camping in a public place" and "lying in a public place," reports show. According to a recent study by ECHO, an Austin nonprofit that maintains demographic information about the homeless population in Austin, more than one-fifth of the city's homeless individuals are "chronically homeless."

To see a full picture of the 165 incidents reported by UTPD, here is an interactive map:

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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