SafeWalks, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign program, ensures students and staff can walk back home safely at night, but the number of times this service is used has fallen drastically — so low that campus police had stopped tracking the data.
SafeWalks is managed by the University of Illinois Police Department. It’s a program where trained student patrol officers answer calls from students and staff who request to be escorted or walked to their chosen destination late at night.
Data released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request is incomplete, but showed the numbers fell drastically in 2020 — so much that the department said it had no data for most of 2021 and all of 2022.
There were 668 escorts in 2018 and 513 in 10 months of 2019. But in 2020, only 185 escorts took place, largely due to the pandemic, police said. There were 92 escorts in the first four months of 2021, the time period for which records were available that year.
In 2023, there have been about 260 escorts as of November 7.
Patrick Wade, senior director of strategic communications for the University’s division of public safety, said the program dates back at least to the 1980s and its funding is a combination of student tuition and the state of Illinois tax money.
“We always tell people the safest way to travel at night is in groups of three or more. And using well-lit high-traffic areas,” Wade said. “The basis is that you never have to walk alone if you don’t want to.”
He said that a few years ago, the program was at about 400 to 500 SafeWalks calls a year. However, he said that he thinks they have now stopped tracking the data altogether.
Wade said the university’s police department hires student patrol officers at the beginning of each semester. At full staffing, there are about 20 officers, but he said they currently only have about 14.
The patrol officers earn $13 per hour at entry level, $13.75 per hour with one year of experience, $14.30 per hour as an assistant team leader and $15.55 per hour as a team leader. Wade said each candidate goes through an application process and a basic background check to ensure they don’t have any criminal records.
Wade said that the student patrol officers also assist with other tasks. They act as extra security at special events, like football or basketball games. They also conduct building checks and are trained in first aid, should they stumble upon somebody who needs medical attention.
“The same radios that our officers carry, [student patrol officers] have the same radios,” Wade said.” So, if they ever see suspicious activity, see a crime in progress or if they need help themselves, they can get right on the radio and start relaying that information to officers.”
“We also train student patrol officers in verbal de-escalation,” Wade said. “So, how to use your words if you’re in a tense situation, where people want to fight.”
Student Patrol Team Leader Ariston Liu, a 19-year-old sophomore in finance, has been on this team since his freshman year. He became a team leader this year to help train and manage the newest student patrol officers.
Liu said the student patrol will move in pairs for safety and liability reasons. Officers also have designated cars that help them patrol the campus area. He said that they divide for each shift, some people being on foot to assist in SafeWalks and some in a car to patrol the area.
Liu said other students often think the patrol’s only job is to bust students for underage drinking, speeding or parking, which leads to negative reactions from others.
“We will be driving the car at night and we will hear a lot of, you know, like, ‘F-you student patrol’, a lot of cursing out just from drunk students,” he said. “I like to attribute most of it to alcohol.”
“We signed up to do this program because we wanted to help other students be safe,” Liu said. “And that’s pretty much our whole job.”
SafeWalks are available 9 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Monday through Sunday. To request a walk, people should call 217-333-1216 or use one of the blue-light emergency phones on campus to contact a dispatcher. Typically, a 15-minute notice is needed to provide enough time for the student officers to get to the chosen meet-up point.
“We use students because we want our students to feel comfortable, “ Wade said. “So, you know, if you’ve been drinking alcohol or whatever. There’s no need to be concerned about that. They’re not communicating that sort of information back to the police department.”
Wade said that their main concern is getting people home safe in situations where illegal activities, such as underage drinking, are involved.
Cameron Alagna, a 22-year-old art education student, said the program is limited when it comes to the distance the officers can walk someone.
“They can’t walk with you if you’re walking for 45 minutes,” Alagna said. “But they can walk you to and from, say, like Gregory Hall to like the union within the timeframe.”
Alagna said that she felt relatively safe while using this service. She said she was at first unnerved by the fact that most student patrol officers are men, but she got used to it.
Patrol lead Liu said sometimes they get students specifically requesting female student patrol officers and they are happy to accommodate those requests.
“We’re about 60% male, 40% female split. I think we have at least six female student patrol officers,” Liu said.
Wade said the department is always open to feedback about SafeWalks in-person, via social media or email.