Public Safety addresses recent upswing in thefts on campus, cautions students

Unattended backpacks in Elrod Commons are an increasingly common target in recent thefts

Bryn McCarthy

The Washington and Lee community is known for its welcoming, safe environment, but recently there have been several instances of theft on campus. (calling that sense of security into question)

Washington and Lee Director of Public Safety Ethan Kipnes said that there have been more reported incidents of theft recently over the last few weeks than usual.

“I would say in the recent past this is a time where we’ve had more incidents happening in a closely concentrated period of time,” Kipnes said. “As far as official things that have been reported, certainly over the last few weeks having five to six thefts in the same area around the same time frame is unusual for our community.”

He said there are also incidents of theft on in the community that go unreported, so having several reports documented in a few weeks’ span is especially abnormal.

Two of the most recent incidents have involved something being stolen in Elrod Commons by the Marketplace and Stackhouse Theater.

“In each case it was usually a book bag or a personal item like that,” Kipnes said. “Several of them were back packs containing either a laptop or other items of value. In each of the cases the items that were taken were left unsecured and unattended for some period of time.”

Morgan Dalton, ‘19, had her wallet stolen.

“I thought I had just lost my wallet,” Dalton said. “I found out [it was stolen] two days later when I realized I couldn’t find my wallet anywhere and checked my bank statement to discover my credit card was used in a transaction across town at a hotel.”

Dalton then called the hotel to try and find out more information. She called her bank to file a report for fraud, and they urged her to call the police.

“I called Public Safety to report it since I thought it could help in the case for the backpacks that had been stolen Tuesday,” Dalton said, “and they called the police to report with them.”

Rachel Hicks, ‘19, also had her backpack stolen.

“I left my backpack outside of D-Hall by the stairs in Commons and went to [Reformed University Fellowship] at 8 p.m.,” Hicks said. “When I came back, both Emma Ernst’s and my backpack were missing.”

After tracking Ernst’s phone, they found their backpacks behind the last stall of the boy’s bathroom in Commons.

“The thieves had tried to hack my computer but hadn’t succeeded,” Hicks said. “They stole $50 from Emma’s [backpack.] We told Public Safety we’d found them and that was that.”

Kipnes agreed the capacity to track stolen items through technology is very helpful.

“In cases where a laptop or other technology is involved, sometimes there are ways that we can attempt to track those things or do other investigative techniques like that,” Kipnes said. “We’re also utilizing any other technology that we have so if an incident occurs in an area where we might have security cameras that pick up on something we will do review of that as well to see if any of the security camera footage would be helpful in following up.”

From there, Public Safety officers try to work with students and local law enforcement to try to recover missing items and find out what happened and who’s responsible.

Kipnes said his best piece of advice for students is to not leave valuable items unattended because the honor system applies only to members of the Washington and Lee community.

“The challenge is [that] we certainly know that this is a very safe community, and we put a lot of faith and trust in the honor system and the members in our community and folks on our campus,” Kipnes said. “I think the reality from our perspective in the security world [is] the only way to be one hundred percent certain and protect your items is to never give anybody the chance to take advantage of a situation.”

Dalton agreed.

“Though we have an honor code, I think there are ways to be smart about it,” she said.

Now, she takes her backpack wherever she goes and tries not to leave it places unattended for an extended period of time.

“I still trust the W&L community,” Dalton said. “But the person who stole my wallet came from outside of the community, so I think people just need to be aware that our honor system is not necessarily intrinsic outside of this community.”

Hicks also still believes in the Washington and Lee community and its honor code.

“I think that leaving our stuff so freely around campus is a luxury, and an open invitation for anyone in town to come and grab it,” she said. “It’s one thing I love most about this school, but it’s important to remember that we can trust the students and professors on this campus, but not everybody in Lexington.”