AUSTIN, Texas — State law enforcement officials recommended Wednesday that the University of Texas beef up police and security guard presence while working to allow fewer homeless people on campus after the slaying of a first-year dance major shook up the school.
The Texas Department of Public Safety also urged the university to improve outdoor video surveillance and lighting by trimming back excessive vegetation, and further restrict unauthorized access to campus buildings after dark. The university says implementing the recommendations will be a top priority.
The university asked the state for advice on improving safety after the death of 18-year-old Haruka Weiser, a student from Oregon whose body was found in a creek near the heart of the university system’s 50,000-student flagship Austin campus on April 5. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted.
The full report is classified and the university said it would work with the state attorney general’s office to decide which portions eventually could be released under open records requests without posing security risks. But a statement from the university said the assessment also recommended that “policies should be developed to reduce the presence of transients on the campus.”
Meechaiel Criner, a teen runaway who had been in Austin a short time after years in the state’s troubled foster care system, is jailed on capital murder charges in Weiser’s death. Criner was 17 when Weiser was killed and turned 18 in June.
Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition in Austin, said police and other authorities sometimes unfairly stigmatize homeless people but that she doesn’t expect Wednesday’s report to necessarily exacerbate the problem.
“It’s always a concern; it’s not just on the UT campus,” Howard said by phone. She added that both the university and the city of Austin own a lot of land that could be used to increase the area’s supply of affordable housing, which could reduce homeless presence around the school.
In the days immediately following the slaying, the Austin Police Department visibly increased patrols on campus, including dispatching some officers on horseback. Weiser’s was the University of Texas’ first on-campus killing since 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the school’s iconic clock tower and opened fire, part of a mass shooting that eventually left 17 people dead.
“This has been a historically safe campus, and the DPS report recognizes the university’s efforts to protect students, employees and visitors,” university President Gregory Fenves said in an email to the campus. “DPS, however, also identifies potential vulnerabilities and issues the university should rectify.”
He added: “Implementing the DPS recommendations will improve the safety of our entire community.”
Steve McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety, said the university had already addressed many safety concerns since April — but there’s more work to be done. He noted that the university campus is in the middle of Austin “one of the fastest growing metropolitan cities in the nation.”
The university “is urged to continuously evaluate its security programs and posture, and collaborate with internal and external stakeholders to address evolving safety and security risks and threats,” McCraw said in a statement.