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Crowds on college campus - female student looking at phone

The human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until around age 25. High school and college students may have bodies that resemble young adults, but there’s sometimes a disconnect between their physical appearance and behavior. Impulse control and judgment are often lacking. It’s not surprising, then, that the types of outdoor security threats that most commonly plague educational campuses are different than what we find in other public spaces. Of course, there is a fair share of theft and petty crimes, but the more prevalent issues fall into two categories:

1) Aggressive behavior at events and gatherings that spirals out of control
2) Vandalism and mischief that occur during “off” hours

While both of these scenarios have been staples of campus life for as long as we can remember, their frequency, intensity, and the seriousness of resulting consequences have ballooned in recent years.

Campuses provide plenty of reasons for animated crowds to gather. Athletic games, protests, concerts, demonstrations, political speeches – all are highly-energized events that draw passionate attendees, often with opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately, rowdiness is far more likely to turn dangerous in today's polarized and pandemic-weary environment. The Wall Street Journal reports that several years of disrupted routines have negatively impacted students' social skills and discipline, leading to increased fighting and gun possession. At large outdoor events, confrontations that start between a few people can quickly draw in others. And, as tensions escalate, campus police and law enforcement must deal with the real possibility of extreme violence like someone getting shot or plowing a vehicle into the crowd.

Vandalism on campuses is also on the rise. After more than a year of lockdowns and remote learning, students returning to campus are venting their pent-up energy in destructive ways. A recent article in the Amherst Student describes a "dramatic shift in weekend culture [on campus]. The resurgence of parties has coincided with an increase in reports of vandalism." Social media is also driving bad behavior. A challenge on the platform TikTok has encouraged students to earn “trophies” for performing destructive acts and then sharing their “work” in photos or video.

More than ever, campus security professionals need help – and fortunately, it's available in the form of powerful technology, aided by analytics and deep learning. New hardware and software give security teams resources to more effectively monitor events and campus grounds, increase deterrence measures, and intervene more quickly and effectively when necessary.

Event Management and Control

Unlike a car break-in or purse-snatching, out-of-control campus events don't occur in just a few minutes. Officers and first responders arrive on-site while the security threat is unfolding – not just after it happens. Situational awareness is critical for informing and coordinating their response.

IP cameras are the foundation of any security operations center; they give security teams an eye on what's happening. Better-quality, higher-resolution cameras are a must for covering large outdoor spaces. Cameras featuring 8-to-15-megapixel resolution allow operators to zoom in with enough detail to identify faces, clothing, and other distinguishing details. Furthermore, today's video management platforms allow for remote monitoring from mobile devices – enabling responding officers to call up a live, birds-eye view of the site, zoom in, and even replay video clips as they navigate the crowd.

Edge analytics provide added intelligence, identifying potential threats as soon as they manifest and before they incur damage. For example, analytics can flag a vehicle moving in the wrong direction or entering a space where it doesn't belong, and automatically issue an alert for officers to follow up. If an altercation begins in the stadium stands, system operators can identify a perpetrator wearing a green baseball cap and black jacket, and then analytics can find him and follow his movement through the crowd. AI reduces the number of "feet on the ground" necessary to watch all areas at all times, and provides direction for human officers to focus their energies where needed.

Audio-over-IP serves as an additional force multiplier for security teams dealing with crowd control. New audio solutions support pre-recorded messages and allow for impromptu announcements to be made from smartphones and broadcast from campus-wide loudspeakers. With the right messaging, officers can coax out-of-control masses to calm down and disperse. It is important to note, however, that impromptu messaging is not analogous to ad-lib messaging. To have the desired calming effect, security teams should prepare, in advance, the precise wording they will use in a range of situations. When audio messages are executed poorly and perceived as threatening, they can have the opposite impact, provoking an increase in crowd aggression instead.

Similarly, practice and training are essential for officers utilizing other security technology in the field, like mobile camera monitoring. Technology can make officers' work easier and allow them to respond more quickly, but if they are fumbling around and unsure how to use it, it will hinder rather than help their efforts.

Vandalism and Mischief

Preventing vandalism and mischief is unlike handling crowd security. It involves monitoring vacant or remote areas of campus, often at night. While certain acts, like fraternity pranks, may be planned in advance, security operations usually have no warning of when or where these crimes will occur.

Despite these differences, much of the same technology that is useful for monitoring large events and crowds can perform double-duty, also helping to deter campus vandalism and mischief crimes. High-resolution cameras equipped with analytics can vary their detection algorithms at different times of the day. For example, stadium cameras that discern crowd density and anomalous traffic patterns during football games can, at night, detect loitering and intruders. False alerts are rare; today's analytics are so accurate that they can differentiate between people, animals, and objects, even when humans are not walking upright.

Audio over IP systems that allow security to make emergency announcements and calm unruly spectators at an afternoon game can, at midnight, issue verbal warnings to intruders, encouraging them to vacate before law enforcement arrives. Messages can be pre-recorded or issued live from a remote monitoring location. Ideally, the troublemakers leave, averting any property damage. At the same time, automated alerts pushed to officers allow them to arrive on-site within minutes and prepared for the encounter.

Other technologies are also valuable in these types of scenarios. Thermal cameras can be paired with visual cameras, providing enhanced perimeter protection and night vision. Radar devices, powered by AI and integrated with panoramic, high-megapixel cameras, can turn a single camera into many – simultaneously providing a wide-angle view and close-up tracking of any intruders' movements. Intruders' locations can even be identified spatially on an interactive map, so that officers can track their movement and plan where to intercept their path.

Staying Current

Institutions should be applauded for making security technology investments, but updating cameras and other network solutions cannot be a once-in-a-decade occurrence. As mentioned earlier, teenagers’ brains mature more slowly than the rest of their bodies. Security technology ages more quickly than other infrastructure. Some say it evolves in dog years – every year equals seven!

Investing in solutions that can expand and grow, like supporting the addition of machine learning and deep learning, will help preserve security systems' value. Even so, it's necessary to budget for regular upgrades.

Also, remember that with every update and enhancement comes the need for education. Intelligent systems have led to slimmed-down security forces, but humans are still entrusted as the ultimate controllers and protectors of campus safety. Technology is only a tool. To deliver on its promise as a force multiplier, everyone in security operations must be 100% proficient using it.

This article originally appeared in the January / February 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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