University Police debate whether or not to continue blue lights on campus

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As students walk home from class on nights where the sun sets early and the University darkens beneath a shadowed moonlight, sometimes, the only visible glow comes from protective blue spheres.

Blue lights, which have towered over campus by the dozens for generations of students, keep a watchful, inanimate eye over parking lots, bus stops and various places throughout the University.

Each emergency box features a bright red button which triggers a call to campus police. A speaker connects the person automatically with a 911 operator, said University Police Captain Tim James.

“What a lot of people associate blue lights with is sexual assaults,” said Monica Moll, University director of Public Safety. “On a college campus, this more occurs in residence halls or in housing.”

Who then uses blue lights, and for what purpose?

To determine their effectiveness, campus police have been tracking the number of calls placed through blue phones.

Between May 5 and Nov. 26 of last year, campus police have responded to approximately 626 calls. Only three, however, were actually legitimate calls, Moll said.

Of the three, not one could be reasonably considered a “true” emergency. One caller requested a jump start to their car and another needed helped into a locked building.

Meanwhile, lightning storms accounted for 548 accidental miscalls or 87 percent of the total number.

While there were no emergency calls and just half a percent of calls were “real,” Moll said that the blue lights maintain significant importance.

The dividing line comes between tangible and intangible — whether the lights’ value comes in the form of their demonstrated necessity or the increased sense of security among students.

“Even though they’re not really used for emergency, we don’t want to alter [students’] perception of safety,” Moll said. “I don’t see any reason to eliminate them.”

Judging the cost benefit of the lights compared to their intrinsic value may prove difficult. While a complete re-evaluation of the blue lights system will come at the end of the year, the numbers are already stirring a debate over their usefulness, James said.

“Everyone’s got a cell phone in their pocket nowadays,” he said. “That’s going to be the first thing, myself included, that I’m reaching for.”

While the tall light structures are recognizable to most students, others may be unsure or skeptical of their purpose.

When a group of students were asked at a bus stop about their feelings on the blue lights, many seemed unsure how to answer. One person commented that they “thought it had something to do with safety” while admitting they didn’t know much else about them. Others shrugged and remarked they weren’t sure what the lights were.

Behind them, a blue light box was mounted to the wall.

Shawn Parsons, a senior technician with Information Technology Services, said the lights maintain some value in the crime they deter from their mere presence.

In his time with ITS, which includes over a decade of installing and repairing the blue lights, Parsons said continued maintenance of the lights were fairly minimal. The University has “gone green with the blue lights,” using lower watt light bulbs and programming them to require minimal power.

With the infrastructure already in place, the only maintenance includes periodical checks from ITS staff or repainting them, James said.

“I’ve talked with students over the years; I’ve talked to parents over the years…everyone feels better having them,” Parsons said.

JaMarcus Williams, a junior environmental science major, agreed.

“The lights should be around,” he said. “I think it helps out [with crime.]”

They reassure even the police captain, whose morning commute allows James to see the darkened University landscape from the Poe Road overpass.

Looking out, “I bet you can see at least six, eight, maybe even more blue lights across campus. Just by seeing that, you’re like ‘it’s nice to see all those emergency poles are there,’” he said.

Their staying power may be abstract, through unmeasurable crime deterrence and the peace of mind of students, but it may be enough to keep the blue lights’ presence on campus.

“This is a very safe campus. We’re proud of that and we maintain it that way,” James said.