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First Crime Alert of School Year: Armed Robbery in Sears Parking Lot

Rutgers Warned Students Not to Park Overnight at Route 1 Department Store
Sears lot
Sears parking lot Bing Maps

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Students at Rutgers University had yet to attend their first classes of the semester before they received their first crime alert, documenting an armed robbery of students.

According to the alert issued at 11:32am on Labor Day, the New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) is looking into an armed robbery that occurred the night before in the parking lot of the city's only major department store.

The scene of the crime was an oversized parking lot in the city's First Ward, home to Sears, Houlihan's, On The Border, and a university administration building.

At about 9:15pm on September 4, the victims "reported that they were approached by two males while walking through the lot," according to the alert.

One of the men allegedly "displayed a handgun and demanded items of value," before fleeing in an unknown direction.

"Descriptions of the perpetrators are limited at this time," reads the alert.

For decades, students have taken advantage of the unregulated free parking in the lot, which almost always has extra spaces.

Aerial photos typically show a large number of vehicles parked near the rear entrance to the lot, where the parking lot meets Rutgers' Cook/Douglass campus.

The buccolic campus abuts the lot, as do the Tov Manor apartment complex and the Dewey Heights neighorhood.

"The Sears parking lot is not a safe area," Cook College's Dean of Students told the community in 2002, according to an article in the student newspaper.  "The area is poorly lighted and is neither observed or patrolled, making it dangerous for students coming to the parking lot late in the night." 

In 2010, burglars robbed or damaged 26 cars in the lot over a three-day weekend, according to a NJ.com report.

According to a more recent article by the Daily Targum's Nick Huber, safety in the off-campus parking lot was still an issue of community conern:

But since the Sears parking lot is not owned by Rutgers, the parking lot’s overhead lights go out at 10 p.m. and the University has no jurisdiction to keep the lot safe from criminal activity at night.

The parking lot is private property and people are advised not to park overnight, said Rutgers spokesman E.J. Miranda.

The property is located within the jurisdiction of the New Brunswick Police Department, Miranda said.

Although both the New Brunswick Police Department and Rutgers University Police Department patrol that area, Miranda said any incidents occurring in that lot that are reported to RUPD are communicated to the NBPD. 

The incident also showcases differences in transparency and public notifications regarding crimes between the RUPD and the NBPD.

The RUPD is significantly more transparent than the NBPD, which routinely does not alert the public to serious crimes like shootings or stabbings.

Unlike the NBPD, which did not issue any public statements about the September 4 armed robbery, the RUPD took the recent crime alert as an opportunity to remind the campus community of strategies "that can reduce your chances of being a crime victim."

Among the "reasonable precautions" recommended by campus police are:

  • Immediately reporting suspicious activity to local law enforcement
  • Remaining alert and aware of the people and circumstances around you
  • Avoid isolated or dark areas
  • Walking in groups when traveling during late night hours

Had the incident happened in another area of town and the victims had not been Rutgers students, or if the RUPD was not informed of the crime by NBPD, it might not have been publicized at all.

In 2014, Rutgers pledged to alert the community to all "serious crimes" committed in the Fifth and Sixth Wards of the city, or if Rutgers people were involved. Previously, the school only issued alerts for crimes on or near its campus to comply with federal law.

While RUPD publishes a daily log of all of the incidents it responds to, the NBPD has repeatedly refused to provide similar information about its own activities and investigations.

The RUPD also used the crime alert to remind the community that it "provides escorts to students, faculty, and staff upon request... with personalized service to... vehicles, campus residence, or the University's mass transit system."

The alert also indicated to the public that the NBPD is "actively investigating this incident" and the RUPD asked on their behalf for anyone with information to contact the NBPD Detective Bureau at 732-745-5217.