The RCMP’s E Division Major Crime Section is now leading the investigation into a series of sexual assaults against young women at the University of British Columbia, amid fears of an escalation in violence after three people were attacked in as many weeks.
The section will work with University RCMP, the Vancouver Police Department, campus security, Transit Police and UBC student housing under what is called the “major case management model,” University RCMP Sergeant Drew Grainger said Monday.
“We have significantly increased our police presence [on campus] and we’re employing tactics, both overtly and covertly, to try and quickly identify and apprehend the person or persons responsible for these acts,” he said.
Neither RCMP nor campus security would comment on how exactly their presence has increased.
Meanwhile, the university has put up posters around campus, e-mailed notices to students and held emergency meetings with residents regarding the attacks. The Alma Mater Society’s Safewalk program, which provides escorted walks to students between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., was on Monday extended until 4 a.m. The same day, campus security handed out safety whistles and wallet-sized cards with emergency phone numbers to students.
Louise Cowin, UBC’s vice-president of students, called the matter a “serious concern” that has seen the university’s community pull together.
“We’re simply not going to be able to post a police person on every corner,” she said at a news conference on Monday. “Certainly, the university and campus security have increased the level of patrol following the second, and again, the third incident, but also it’s about the vigilance and the personal practices of our community and members.”
The heightened measures come after three women were separately attacked in similar fashion since Sept. 28. In all three, the women – ages 17, 19 and 20 – were walking alone, late at night, when a man grabbed them from behind and attempted to drag them elsewhere while reaching under their skirts. In all three, the women screamed, causing the assailant to flee.
However, in the most recent attack, on Saturday, the man punched the student in the face – an escalation of violence police find troubling.
“We have seen this through other documented cases that this type of behaviour does escalate more quickly,” Sgt. Grainger said.
While police do not yet know if one person is responsible for all three attacks, he said the similarities between the three are striking.
“The suspect descriptions are a little inconsistent, but it’s the method, the time and the locations,” he said. “We believe it is a Caucasian male.”
The university’s student paper, The Ubyssey, reported on Monday a fourth sexual assault occurred over the weekend and that it “followed the pattern of the previous attacks.” However, police have not received such a report and called the claim unsubstantiated.
Students who spoke with The Globe and Mail on Monday said the concern on campus was palpable – and particularly troubling in light of a “rape chant” that occurred during frosh week in September.
“There should be more education not just about not getting raped, but not raping,” said Anasazi Valair, 21. “I think there is too much blame put on victims for doing the wrong thing, or being out late at night, or wearing the wrong clothes.”
Cynthia Williams, 23, said there isn’t necessarily a cause and effect between the chant and recent attacks, “but it still signifies there is a culture of violence and a culture of rape that exists. A lot of people don’t necessarily understand the connection between lighthearted jokes and the seriousness of a lot of situations.”
Shane Galway, 22, said he is concerned by the lack of a visible police presence on campus. Mr. Galway said he and a friend made a point of walking the campus grounds from 1 to 3 a.m. on Monday – including the areas in which the attacks occurred – and saw only one unmarked police vehicle pass by.
“I thought this place would have been teeming with cops at night given what’s been happening,” he said. “We were both very, very surprised at how little we saw in terms of a visible presence in security.”