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Students discuss heightened surveillance in feedback session with administrators

<h5>The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Students gathered via Zoom on Monday, Nov. 21 for a feedback session with Public Safety officials on a proposed expansion of security cameras on campus.

Expanding security cameras is one of several recent proposals that University officials said aim to enhance campus safety. Other possible changes include modified building access and increased lighting around campus, according to campus-wide emails from administrators.

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The proposal comes in the wake of the disappearance and death of Misrach Ewunetie ’24 in October. While Ewunetie’s cause of death has not yet been released as the Middlesex County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet released results of an autopsy, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office previously stated that there is “no evidence of any criminal activity associated with Ms. Ewunetie’s death.”

Some community members have expressed support for expanding security cameras on campus, while others have shared concerns about increased surveillance, especially with regards to nonviolent violations of University policy. 

In a Nov. 18 email, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) encouraged students to share feedback on security cameras through an online form or by attending the session on Nov. 21.

Approximately 20 community members attended, including Assistant Vice President for Public Safety Kenneth Strother Jr., his assistant Eileen Laird, and Public Safety (PSAFE) Director of Operations Kinamo Lomon.

“I’m here to listen,” Strother said at the start of the meeting. He emphasized that plans to implement additional security cameras around campus have not yet been solidified, nor would the final decision be his. Rather, he said he intended to collect feedback from students and relay it to University leadership.

Strother answered a number of questions about how security cameras currently operate on campus, explaining that existing cameras generally monitor “cultural property” like works of art and library materials, as well as high-security buildings such as data centers and Princeton Stadium.

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He added that footage is reviewed most often in the wake of criminal investigations. 

“We don’t just randomly look at video,” Strother said, noting some exceptions for highly-surveilled areas, like Firestone Library’s special collections. Footage in these areas can be retained for up to six months, but most security camera footage is only kept for 30 days. He emphasized that the University “has probably the most stringent requirements for camera review.”

Currently, cameras in most areas on campus are limited, making the University “almost an outlier” in comparison with security camera programs at peer institutions, according to Strother. 

He noted that cameras are not often utilized with regards to reports of suspicious persons. “But that’s not to say that they wouldn’t [help] if we had a bigger program,” he added.

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Regarding plans for camera expansion, Strother expressed that the addition of new cameras would not necessarily lead to an increased level of surveillance, as the dispatchers who monitor cameras would still be primarily focused on 911 calls and radio transmissions. 

He also noted that PSAFE would have the capability to blur the faces of those appearing in security footage, only removing the blur in the event of an investigation.

New cameras would likely appear around the exteriors of living spaces on campus, typically in visible locations. Strother expressed that while there may be some exceptions, he expects it will be “very obvious” where cameras have been installed. But, Strother said, PSAFE would not publish a list of locations of cameras.

Some students raised concerns about the expansion of security cameras, citing what they perceive to be a lack of trust in PSAFE and other University agencies among students.

Referring to methods used in Honor Code investigations, such as the use of students’ Canvas records and IT files, Seth Kahn ’25 conveyed that “there is kind of a lack of trust in that [there is little faith that] the administration would not violate students’ privacy.”

Kahn added that an increase of surveillance on campus would “disproportionately [harm] minorities and people of color.”

Jayden Morales ’25 echoed this sentiment, saying, “I think a lot of people of color on campus and minorities are just fearful of disproportionate action by police officers.”

Strother responded by saying that he believes this should not be a concern at Princeton. 

“I would be a fool to say that that doesn’t exist in the country, but I can’t say that it happens here,” Strother responded. “It won’t happen here under my leadership.” He added, “I don’t see [PSAFE] as being a tool in that disproportionate policing.”

Morales then said that, despite the University’s stringent requirements for camera review, additional cameras may leave the campus vulnerable to becoming a “surveillance state.”

“I get that it’s stringent, and I get that it’s not used to find people who are committing crimes, but I just worry about people’s privacy,” Morales said.

Other students also expressed concerns about the way camera footage would be used in response to nonviolent offenses.

“My concern when it comes to the cameras is that we’re going to be ‘catching’ more students who are committing nonviolent acts,” said Isabella Shutt ’24, USG Campus and Community Affairs (CCA) Chair, to the group. Nonviolent acts may include, for example, smoking marijuana outside of a dormitory. 

Strother said that PSAFE does not “self-initiate” reports regarding this type of behavior. However, “at the end of the day, there is University policy, and if someone says that someone is violating it, we have an obligation to respond,” he said.

“In that response, would video cameras be used to corroborate reports?” asked Alex Norbrook ’26. 

Strother responded that “they could be.”

Some other students expressed support for the expansion.

“I don’t think there should ever be a point when [a member of our community] just vanishes into thin air,” Mikayla Merin ’25 said, “so I’m very thankful that we’re pushing this initiative forward.”

Merin is a former news staffer for the ‘Prince.’

Merin referenced a personal experience this fall “when a man broke into my dorm by drilling it off its hinges and leaving a note,” expressing a desire for a greater sense of safety on campus. 

The conversation sometimes turned to potential alternative methods of enhancing campus safety.

“Greater lighting would do a lot to help us feel safer,” said USG President Mayu Takeuchi ’23. Strother emphasized that other administrators are currently working on issues of lighting around campus.

Kahn also raised concerns about the blue light system around campus, saying that many students don’t know where blue lights are or how to use them.

Strother replied, “we are looking at our blue light strategy,” noting that blue lights on campus are tested monthly, but that students use them infrequently and more often opt to contact public safety using mobile phones. He added that the University is exploring the possibility of giving “a more robust explanation” of the blue light system during first-year orientation.

Looking forward, Strother said that policies regarding security cameras would be compiled into one document that he hopes will be officially adopted next month. Takeuchi asked whether this policy would be made public, and Strother said he will “make a notation that there is a strong desire to make sure that we make [the policy] public.”

As the meeting wrapped up, some students shared final remarks on the broader discussion of campus safety. 

“What I would like to see moving forward for Princeton is less of this guardianship role,” Shutt said. “I think there’s an element of personal and communal responsibility to one another that no increase in technology is going to create for us.”

Takeuchi summarized the general sentiment of student feedback received by USG. “It’s important to keep our campus safe, and at the same time, [when] increasing cameras, there needs to be strict, publicly available guidelines in place to ensure student privacy,” she said.

She noted that students can expect to see communication about a second feedback session on Thursday, Dec. 1 through official USG channels.

Annie Rupertus is a sophomore from Philadelphia, an Assistant Data Editor, and a News staff writer who covers USG for the ‘Prince.’ 

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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