TCS puts college security to the test

Article First Published 11 February 2010 1 November 2010

Battlements and buttressed towers: evidently, our colleges were built to withstand not only time but the forces of the outside world as well, and to keep the students safe within their walls. Yet despite this, every year some colleges inevitably experience crime, and the odd bicycle or laptop will disappear.

In order to assess college security, The Cambridge Student (TCS) reporters attempted to gain access to buildings within a number of colleges.

TCS asked the police about their experience with break-ins involving colleges: “Some burglars will pose as students, carrying rucksacks and will follow people through swipe card mechanisms. Their aim is to find unlocked rooms where they can steal a laptop or other valuable items.”

TCS decided to first examine security at two central colleges: King’s and John’s. It transpired that the King’s swing (climbing the gate at Queen’s Road) was an easy way in, even once the gate had been shut for the night. While the gate to the New Garden site may have an alarm on it, it is easy to jump over it and gain access to the New Garden Hostel, whose ground floor rooms have French doors opening onto the lawns.

The concern about unlocked doors is valid: many students, for practicality’s sake, will leave their doors open or on the latch whilst visiting friends, cooking, or anything else that doesn’t take them far away. We discovered that it is possible at night to get into parts of college that are restricted to students, for example the kitchens. By following students through swipe-card locks, it is indeed easy for non-college members to access areas filled with valuable equipment such as the computer centre, and the library, where students had left laptops unattended. Neither were there any staff on duty.

On the other hand, King’s porters were quick to intervene last term when there was an attempted break-in into Spalding Hostel. The accommodation in question is outside the college’s walls, between the Corpus Clock and Market Square. The porters are not allowed to comment on particular incidents regarding security, but they were witnessed by many students as they streamed across King’s Parade once the alarm had been set off in the hostel by an intruder.

St John’s, on the other hand, is rather more difficult to get into at night. With three porter’s lodges, the college is well staffed and hard to enter. Going through it revealed that students were relatively vigilant, and most doors were locked.

The very nature of the college as a throughway for many students on their way to the Sidgwick Site or the Backs is perhaps the reason behind the tough security. When asked, the porter on duty explained that due to the size of the college (over 1,000 strong, including the staff); it isn’t possible to recognise everybody coming in and out,

TCS was able to contact the head of security at a central Cambridge College, who prefers to remain anonymous.

According to him, “most robberies in Cambridge colleges take place between 6 and 7 in the morning.” The reason for this is partly because while the doors of the colleges are generally open by this point, few students are about except for rowers on their way to the boathouses. The college in question does not however “have a problem with security”.

When asked how the staff went about making college a safe place for students, he gave a surprising answer: “Security is not the main issue, welfare is. You have to strike a balance between the two”. While the students are made aware of preventive measures upon arriving in Cambridge, “during Exam Term their minds will be elsewhere. College therefore ups the ante during Easter term, and the porters are told to give the students their space but make sure college is safe at the same time”. The college official in question also stressed the importance of staff in deterring possible invaders. ‘It’s all about presence, not the cameras. You could put in 24 cameras, what good are they if nobody’s manning them?’ Moreover, he agreed that often it was down to the students to be vigilant: “college security is only as good as the students allow it to be”.

TCS contacted the Assassin’s Guild, a student society in Cambridge. It runs a variety of the game known as ‘Killer’.

The object of the game is to track down and eliminate the other players, while also staying alive yourself. ‘Assassination’ is carried out with a variety of harmless toys or fake weapons which range from pens labelled as ‘knife’ to water pistols and Nerf weaponry.

As a result, the Assassins are quite used to gaining access to buildings which should in theory be closed to anyone outside college, making use of the sometimes lax security. Two leading members of the Guild  who asked to be referred to using the pseudonyms ‘Duke’ and ‘Duchess’, spoke to TCS about their experiences with gaining access to colleges.

The Duke told TCS “It’s very easy to get into any college, especially if you’re a member of the university”. He apparently has only “been thrown out of a college once, but I’ve been stopped a few times. Hughes Hall is particularly good for security. It doesn’t have porters in the evening but there’s only one way in, and that’s locked after 6pm. Then the first stage of each accommodation block is locked, along with each individual floor”.

“The new block in the Memorial Court at Clare is as bad as the Stephen Hawking building in Gonville and Caius in terms of difficulty of access, and St Chad’s (St Catharine’s) is fairly strong as well. Individual flats in a block, all key-locked, 4 to a flat. Almost as good as a house. The whole block gets locked at night too. Houses are difficult. But there are some student houses where the back doors are left open”.

The Stephen Hawking building, Pembroke and Trinity Hall all have auto-locking doors. The main problem is then students propping their doors open.

In Clare’s Memorial Court a student had left his door open with his laptop left running and his Facebook and Hermes open. He had a Wii, a 360, money and lecture notes all on display in his open room.

As it was only assassins all he suffered was some abuse of his Facebook status, but if it had been someone else there was a lot of money’s worth of laptop and games consoles to be taken.

The Duke told TCS that “the other day I was actually attacking Harvey court, and I found all of the doors are card locked, but it’s all connected. The staff kitchens are always open”. Churchill also cardlocks every staircase, and at Jesus there are rumours that they are considering putting card locks upon all of the doors into staircases.

Security in Colleges often relies solely on the watchful eyes of the porters. It to makes a difference to the levels of security the number of Porters’ lodges that any given College has. This means that more entrances into a College are watched, making the buildings more secure. The Duke added that “Trinity porters are more strict, but that’s probably individuals rather than a general rule, and a lot of accommodation doesn’t have porters nearby”.

CCTV is another security feature with which many colleges have equipped themselves. However the Assassins weren’t convinced of the merits of expensive cameras, in comparison to students and staff just keeping an eye out. The Duke says that “I can’t say I’ve ever been spotted or stopped due to CCTV, they’ve always got blind spots”.

The Assassins wanted to point out that “we make sure we cause as little trouble as possible within the university”. In assassin games “you have to use a door to get in. We’re quite strict”. TCS also spoke to a first year night climber who, even after just two terms told TCS that “I’ve been to pretty much every college; the back doors are pretty easy to get into”. The Nightclimbing Society is officially banned in Cambridge, due both to security and safety reasons.

The Duke and The Duchess were kind enough to allow a TCS reporter to follow them on a ‘hunt’. The TCS reported followed the assassins to the entrance to Trinity accommodation on Sidney Street. This door is card locked. But, having waited fewer than two minutes a Trinity student let us into the building.

From there, we walked past the porters lodge without so much as a second glance, past the area called ‘the village’, and into the Wolfson Building. The assassins had found the room number of their target on Facebook. He happened to be wearing a T-shirt with his accommodation written upon in one of his photos. We reached his door, and they knocked. Sadly, he wasn’t in. Another day perhaps.

However, the TCS reporter couldn’t help but notice that their kitchens were left completely open, with all of their food on display. If a student had left their door on latch, and we had not been assassins and reporters, it would be surprisingly simple to walk out post-haste with a laptop.

There have been, according to Emma Hardy of the Cambridgeshire Police, four in-college robberies in the past two weeks. However she pointed out that “there hadn’t been any for ages before that”. She recommended moreover that such theft could be prevented quite simply ‘by students locking their doors when out”.

At Peterhouse, the porters check the bikes every morning, and make regular rounds of the buildings. Ultimately, while it may be possible to gain access to colleges, it is the presence of staff and the necessary vigilance of students that act as deterrents to would-be criminals, more than the walls themselves.

Alexander Kung & Felicity Davies

Article First Published 11 February 2010