Remembering his nephew as a gregarious and entrepreneurial student who "was going to be somebody," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said Monday that his killing should prompt university officials everywhere to reassess off-campus security.
Christopher Cummings, who had just completed his junior year at Old Dominion University and had decided to study law, was shot to death Friday in the house where he lived with other students near the Norfolk, Va., campus. He was 20. Police have not identified a suspect or a motive for the killing.
"I believe that Christopher was bearing tremendous gifts," Cummings said Monday. "Unfortunately, because of some thugs down there in Norfolk, he will not be able to deliver those gifts."
The Baltimore Democrat said he hoped the incident would spur officials at Old Dominion and the city of Norfolk to step up security in the neighborhoods around the school. He cited a spate of burglaries that occurred in the month leading up to the shooting.
"The more I've learned about this, I think some of these kids are in a situation where they're almost like sitting ducks," Cummings said. "There are a lot of students who I really wonder about as far as their safety is concerned."
Susan Malandrino, a spokeswoman for the 24,000-student university, said that "safety has always been a priority around campus." The university's president, John R. Broderick, wrote a letter to students and faculty over the weekend noting that the university had recently urged city officials and landlords to institute stronger safety measures.
An outspoken critic of the witness intimidation campaign known as "Stop Snitching," Cummings stressed that anyone with information about his nephew's killing should contact local police.
He said he has attended many funerals for young people shot in Baltimore, but this is the first time his family has been touched by such violence.
The congressman said he would speak with his nephew, the son of his brother James Cummings, about every six weeks when the family came together for holidays. Christopher Cummings grew up in Woodbridge, Va., where he graduated with honors from Forest Park High School.
The Theta Chi fraternity at Old Dominion held a candlelight vigil Saturday night for Cummings, who was a member of the fraternity, and his roommate Jake Carey, who was also shot in the incident. Police said Carey is being treated for life-threatening injuries.
Benjamin Thompson, president of the local chapter of the fraternity, referred calls to the university.
Jeffrey Toussaint, a sociology lecturer at the university who taught Christopher Cummings in a class last fall, said the neighborhoods just off campus are a mix of middle-income students and low-income, long-time residents.
"It does lead to crime sometimes," said Toussaint. He said he believes the university is doing its best to address the issue.
Toussaint said Cummings quickly stood out in the 70-student introduction to sociology course last year.
"He was always engaged, and was always ready with something to say," Toussaint said. "He saw the big picture of humanity."
The shooting occurred in the House district of Republican Rep. Scott Rigell. A spokeswoman for Rigell, Kim Mosser, said her boss wrote Cummings to express his condolences.
Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat who represents other portions of Norfolk, said he also has concerns about security around the university. He said police are reviewing their tactics in the area.
"They've had some problems, though it hasn't been, from what I understand, much more than any other campus," said Scott, whose niece will begin classes at Old Dominion this fall. "I've had some concern about it."
Cummings said he hoped some good would come from the killing.
"What I am concerned about is making sure that young people understand that they have to be cautious and making sure that the city understands that they have to take care of these kids," he said.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the higher-education safety nonprofit Security on Campus Inc., said universities typically do not have legal authority to police off-campus areas. That responsibility generally falls to local police, he said.
"When they choose to live off campus, they choose to be part of that broader community," Carter said.
But in a recent trend, universities across the country — including the University of Maryland — are entering into agreements with local police that authorize university security officers to patrol off-campus areas where many students live, Carter said.
Landlords, too, have become more committed to reporting crime near a campus if a university requests it, he said.
But "for wholly off-campus apartments," Carter said, "the hard truth is students are really on their own."
Cummings said he would eulogize his nephew at the funeral in Baltimore on Saturday. The services will take place at Victory Prayer Chapel on Reisterstown Road.
"I've been asked by my family to do something that is going to be probably one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life," Cummings said of the eulogy. "It's going to take every bit of strength that I have in my body."