By Neesha HoseinThe police department at the University of Houston-Clear Lake has a new police chief who has begun implementing a series of new policies and procedures.
"I feel like we should always display that certain amount of professionalism," said Paul Willingham, UHCL chief of police. "You'll see. There will be a change in uniform soon that will be more professional-looking. In the spring you might start seeing a little more involvement in community outreach. I'm working with David Rachita to perhaps assign officers as liaisons with the student clubs and organizations, and possibly even be invited to take part in some of the campus activities so that we're not just uniforms to people. That's important."
In response to complaints about parking and traffic related fees, Willingham says the fees here are not higher in comparison to that of other institutions from what he has seen. Parking fees go toward keeping the roads and parking lots paved and painted, pays for the process and supplies for parking permits, lights, emergency call boxes, and maintenance. He says he is aware that some lots have problems and solutions are in the works. Lots A and B are scheduled for repair this December.
The annual parking fee at UHCL is $70 and the annual fee at UH-Main Campus is $130. Students at Texas A&M University at Galveston pay $33 per semester.
"Parking fees are determined through the University Shared Governance Process," Willingham said. "The university police work in concert with other UHCL departments and governing bodies [Finance, University Life Committee, Traffic Committee, etc] to determine the appropriate fees for parking. The intent of parking fees is to provide funds for repair and upkeep of university parking and street facilities, and also to assure a sense of order to the parking process. In comparison to most university campuses, UHCL parking is quite reasonable."
Students may appeal parking tickets through the Parking Citation Appeals Committee.
Warnings are not issued prior to parking tickets because the first 12 days of each long semester is the warning period. Permits can be purchased prior to the first day of class and during the 12-day warning period. They can be prepaid online.
Willingham explained that issuing warnings could prove costly to the police department because "students should know that they have to pay for parking. That's why warnings aren't given. They cost the same amount for the paper and manpower it takes to distribute them and staff to enter them into the computer and keep track of them just like citations. None of that stuff pays for itself."
As for designated parking lots such as employees' parking, only faculty and staff can park in designated faculty/staff lots. There is no permit distinction between faculty and staff; however there are permit distinctions from lot to lot. If someone is using a permit for one lot, but parks in another for which they are not authorized, they should expect a parking citation. Willingham justified that employees pay for parking because, just like students, they utilize the same roads and services at UHCL.
Students have complained that there has been a recent increase in parking and speeding tickets. Willingham explained that he does not yet have the full statistics for this semester, that information remains unavailable. Each officer is required to spend a minimum of 90 minutes out of their eight-hour shifts doing reinforcement on traffic and parking. Checks are done randomly so violations will not go unseen.
Willingham also plans to work closely with the administration, especially with those who have direct impact on the daily lives of students.
"It is vital that [the police] have a relationship with the student body," said Anthony Jenkins, dean of students. "If our students only see them when they're being reprimanded, that creates a very hostile environment. This is a great opportunity for the police department to debunk myths and stereotypes."
Jenkins said that "the current chief is student-centered and student-friendly," and he noticed changes instantly as the two have worked together on several issues thus far. He feels that the roles of "the police department and dean of students are critical on any campus at any school in our ability to interrupt the educational process."
Jenkins hopes that students will learn to interact and feel more comfortable with the officers. In times of being pulled over or reprimanded for violations, he would like to see it used as an "educational moment" rather than a heated confrontation.
Both Jenkins and Willingham spoke of the impressively low crime rate at UHCL and hope that it is not just because students are unwilling or uncomfortable reporting crimes.
Willingham says no complaints will be "blown off." Officers will check on everything that is reported. Police are on campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. A minimum of three officers are always on campus during the peak hours of classes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Some students have positive views about their campus police department. "The police department on a whole have all been friendly, always acknowledging one's presence in the room," said Abigail Fabien, graduate student and management information systems major in the School of Business. "It shows a sense of genuine concern, whether it was just finding out where I am from, an audible hello, or a wave while driving by. Familiarity breeds security. As to before and after, most have always been friendly, but visibility and accessibility has improved remarkably. If you walk around every five minutes you can find an officer."
Some students are unhappy with traffic and parking-related policies. "It sucks and the design of the permit is stupid," said Marco Zambetti, undergraduate in the School of Human Sciences and Humanities. "It is so poorly designed and falls off easily so it is sad that we have to pay for something that isn't our fault. And the price is nearly half of a year's worth of parking."
Parking and traffic issues are not the only area of concentration for the UHCL police.
A Code-3 is an emergency call. The expected response time for an officer to arrive on the scene is five minutes or less.
People on campus after hours can call the police department and request a "welfare check," where an officer can walk by and ensure that everything is OK.
Not only is the police department in charge of the daily security of the campus, but they are also planning for any future disruptions in campus safety. In the wake of such tragedies like Columbine and Virginia Tech, Willingham explained the need for a prompt action plan.
An active shooter drill will take place Dec. 15 in the Student Services and Classroom Building. This is a mandatory training day for all department officers. Actors will play the roles of potential threats as well as innocent bystanders and "dummy ammunition known as simmunition" will be used in place of real bullets. The drills help police become more conscious of campus layout and develop action plans in preparation for a crisis.
Willingham plans to continue to build a positive image of the police department by following through with his new initiatives.
"We have begun an overhaul of our administrative policies and operating procedures," Willingham said. "To date, we have focused on internal processes, patrol expectations and traffic enforcement standards. In addition, we are working with the dean of students to address critical incident response and student-related crime response. As a foundation for our directive system, we are using the standards manual published by the Commission on Accreditation for law enforcement agencies. Our goal is to adapt best practices of the industry and standardize our directives with those of the top law enforcement agencies in the country."