AUSTIN (KXAN) — Friday, a jury found 20-year-old Meechaiel Criner guilty of capital murder in the on-campus violent killing of University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser.
Present for the verdict were several members of UT leadership, as well as Longhorn students, parents, and safety groups. Weiser’s death is often referred to as what kickstarted conversations about safety on campus in the last two years.
UT Austin Police Chief David Carter was out of town during the trial, but followed it closely from afar, and said the court proceedings forced many in the UT community to relive the pain of Weiser’s traumatic death and to think about the safety gaps her death exposed.
“The suspect did in fact crash into a cubby hole — as it were — that was highlighted during the trial, that sort of a wakeup call in terms of university engagement,” Carter said, referring to Criner’s admission that he spent time squatting at an unlocked storage room at the UT stadium. “It’s really important for students, faculty, staff or visitors to always call us if they see something suspicious or something that looks out of place.”
Carter said that the trial was an emotionally significant time for the UT community.
“I felt that the verdict was just. I was not surprised by the verdict,” he said.
“When there is a trial, especially a murder trial, [it] brings people back to that particular time, when there’s the sense of fear, the uncertainty, the emotions and angst are all there, so the past two weeks we’ve had to relive that,” Carter explained.
School leaders refrained from commenting during the trial, so KXAN’s Alyssa Goard sat down with Carter for his first interview since the verdict to talk about what has changed since 2016.
Carter said he followed along with coverage of the trial as the courtroom learned that Criner admitted to squatting in both an unlocked storage room in the UT stadium as well as an abandoned building on Medical Arts Street in 2016.
Attorneys and several witnesses in the trial also spoke to the lack of lighting and the tough-to-see-through vegetation around Waller Creek in the area where Weiser was killed.
Carter explained that a Texas Department of Public Safety audit conducted after Weiser’s death found that UT needed to improve both its campus locks and surveillance videos, as well as trim overgrown plants and increase lighting near older paths. Carter said the university has made significant improvements in all these realms since the audit.
“Looking at things such as security cameras, which we won’t go into great detail on, but there’s certainly a change [with] giving the police department to greater access to those security cameras and looking at the placement,” Carter explained
Carter added that a slew of changes have been put into place since Weiser’s death, and many of those are less visible to people walking around campus.
UT Austin has also been in the process of a campus security overhaul prompted by this audit.
UT is on track for all academic and student buildings to receive these improvements by the fall, which include: one main entry and exit point, ID key card access for students and staff, limits on the hours and places for people to visit campus buildings, as well as the installation of “safety hubs” at all campus buildings which contain AED’s, bleeding control kits and emergency call boxes.
All UT community members have been asked over the last year to carry around their ID as their key card as part of these changes.
UT says this safety project is currently 80 percent complete. Other safety projects triggered by the DPS audit to increase security and lighting at UT Austin’s JJ Pickle Campus are underway as well.
“There are more than 160 large buildings on campus, the police basically have to work with our faculty, staff, and our students to help us be our eyes and ears if there are issues going on,” Carter explained.
“Over the past two years, significant changes occurred, but one of the most important changes in my view, is that relationship between the police and the entire community, recognizing that when we work together we are a safer community,” Carter added.
For example, UT Police have been trying to reach students with safety information on social media, because they’ve realized it can be a more effective way to reach out with young adults than methods like email.
Carter said he’s also pushed his officers to be more approachable in the last few years and to boost their accuracy and quickness in communicating with the campus.
Their efforts to improve communication with the campus have been working, Carter says.
“Now we have an engaged community, when they have someone who looks like they’re in need or someone who appears to be threatening we’re getting that call, we’re responding within one or two minutes in most cases,” Carter said, adding that students have become more likely over the last two years to call in when see a homeless or transient individual on campus.
Carter added that starting this fall, a new page on the UTPD website will show community members who they can contact in their part of campus with questions or safety concerns. In a reorganization of UTPD, 8 officers were appointed to represent each of the UTPD districts, and will be tasked with responding to community concerns.
Those district representatives and other resources were presented to UT’s incoming class of 2022 as they went through orientation this summer.
“More so than ever before we have been really engaged with freshman orientation,” Carter said, explaining UTPD has been given more time and brought in more officers to meet new Longhorns than in years prior. He said these officers try to impress upon students the importance of safety and the value of calling police immediately when they notice something suspicious.
UTPD has more officers now than ever before. When Chief Carter began working at UT Austin five years ago, his department could have a maximum of 67 officers, now their maximum number is up to 104.
Carter explained that the department has at least 32 officers patrolling the university’s eight districts in any given 24 hour period. In addition to that, officers on bike patrol travel between UT and West Campus as needed and Carter plans on boosting the numbers in the bike patrol unit to eight.
The department is also very ready to improve their communication internally. Carter explained that their dispatch system is at “end of life” and they have been approved to get a new system at the start of 2019.
In general, Chief Carter considers the Forty Acres a safe place, noting that prior to the murders of Haruka Weiser in 2016 and Harrison Brown in 2017, the only on-campus murder was the UT Tower shooting in 1966.
But he noted that on that night of April 3, 2016, the UT campus was not a safe place for Haruka Weiser, and that fact drives him to continue working on new ways to prevent another violent attack from happening.
“Her flame shines bright and we will keep her in our hearts, she has impacted this university in very positive ways,” Carter said of Weiser.