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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

Community Council Votes Down Use of Security Cameras

Community Council voted on Monday against a proposal to install security cameras in the hallways where bags are left outside of dining halls, with the intention of deterring and monitoring theft.

Graffiti protesting the installation of cameras appeared Monday morning at a number of locations on campus. One message outside Atwater Dining Hall read: “Who watches the watchmen?” alongside the image of a rat cutting the cord to a security camera. A similar rat image surfaced earlier this semester in March on graffiti that appeared outside Warner Hall, McCardell Bicentennial Hall and the Mahaney Center for the Arts.

On Thursday, April 23, Community Council hosted a forum to discuss surveillance cameras. Lisa Burchard, director of Public Safety, framed the cameras as a way to deter criminals and to aid in an investigation.

“When things start to go missing, [security cameras are] one investigative tool that’s missing for us that other institutions have … If someone were to report, ‘I left it at 11, came back at noon and it was gone,’ that period of time would be looked at to see if we could see where that bag was, could we see anything of value that may help us understand how that bag ended up leaving the dining hall,” Burchard said.

Solon Coburn, Telecom Manager and Tech Support Specialist for Public Safety, emphasized that there would be strict guidelines as to how and when footage could be reviewed, and that they would most likely only be used in victim crimes like property theft or assault.

“We’re talking limited use in public areas with a really strict guiding document. All of our peer institutions have similar documents about when they can be reviewed, who can ask them to be reviewed, what kind of situations trigger a review, and, when they’re pulled up, who are the actual people looking at it. That’s what we’re thinking of, a very narrow scope of use,” Coburn said.

The first effort to install security cameras began in the spring of 2006, when 22 people reported thefts, most of which were wallets with identification and credit cards from jackets and backpacks. That fall, Public Safety, with the police’s help, was able to arrest the person responsible. The person was not a student or staff member.

Most years see five to eight property crimes occur at the dining halls. There have been 38 this year. Now, as opposed to 2006, thefts involve more objects of value, such as laptops.

Burchard noted that most thefts this year have occurred in Proctor dining hall, rather than Ross, which could indicate the effectiveness of Ross’ key card entry in preventing theft. 

Some believed that students should be more aware of their property, leaving bags unattended in dining halls at their own risk.

“For me, I think it’s more a matter of personal responsibility. Keep your stuff with you if you can’t replace it. If you can and want to take that risk, go ahead, but you’re exposing yourself to the consequences,” one student said.

In an email to the Campus, Student Co-Chair of Community Council Ben Bogin ’15 emphasized the need to consider all options for preventing property loss.

“I think that it’s a complicated issue. The cameras have the possibility to drastically reduce theft, but a number of people have also told me that the costs outweigh the benefits. During the conversation, a few people said that students should start bringing their belongings into the dining hall, which seems like a good start to me. I think it’s important that we look at all of our options,” Bogin wrote.

Other students objected that surveillance would detract from the sense of trust and community in spaces that cameras are installed.

“To me the thing that really makes Middlebury special is our rock solid sense of community … The cornerstone of that is that this is a place where people trust one another.  Obviously bad things do happen … this is a place where we trust one another and that extends to the dining hall and to spaces that are not purely student-owned or that you need key card access to get into. To put even a few cameras like we’re suggesting here so very much erodes that sense of trust that it is something I’m really against,” Zak Fisher ’16 said.

Fisher also voiced concern about the ease with which cameras could be installed in other spaces, like the frequently vandalized vending machine in Ross, once the precedent is set with dining halls.

Durga Jayaraman ’16 suggested that installing cameras was pragmatic, as it would not only deter crime but would also make students feel secure in leaving their belongings.

“If surveillance cameras deter people from stealing… and [we] regain our ability to leave out stuff without thinking about it outside, would we not want that?” Jayaraman said. “We’re saying that the feeling of distrust [caused by security cameras] is outweighing wanting accountability for people who have had their stuff stolen.”

Sierra Jackson ’18 emphasized the need to be empathetic to students for whom security cameras and notions of policing cause anxiety.

“[Alex] even talked about cameras in her high school… I’m from Chicago and so there are definitely communities with police cameras around… these are real issues for people. They bring up a lot of anxiety. We really need to be conscious of who we’re talking about when we’re talking about [this] Middlebury community and include those voices too,”
Jackson said.

The room was divided on possible alternatives to prevent or deter theft. Having a student monitor or Public Safety officer attend the bag area was deemed ineffective—it would be difficult for one person to remember what property belonged to each student with the constant flow of people in and out of the dining hall.

One idea, proposed by Fisher and met with support, was a poster campaign that would inform students of the number of thefts this year and would encourage them to look out for their and their friends’ things.

“Whether that’s the message we intended to send… you’re not trying to say ‘we don’t trust Middlebury students’. [But,] that’s the message you get when you see a surveillance camera,” said Fisher.