USF campus police notification system receives criticism from students

Students across campus have raised concerns about the notification system used by University Police to alert students about potential dangers around campus. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

When a University Police (UP) dispatcher received a call from an anonymous source on Sept. 1 threatening to blow up Juniper-Poplar Hall on campus, a team was sent to the dorm to clear the building.

One thing, however, was missing. 

No text or emails alerts were sent to students informing them of the threat, according to UP chief Christopher Daniel.

The team sent to the dorm informed the students inside the building of the threat and gave them the option of going into the parking garage if they wished to leave. 

The timing of the call impacted the department’s reaction to the threat since the call came in right as a lightning storm began. Sending students out into the storm might have put them in harm’s way as well. When the team searched the building, no threat was found.

UP is required to share information about crime on campus “and inform the public of crime in or around campus,” according to the Clery Act, which is a requirement for all federally funded colleges and university. 

Students frequently criticize the efficiency of the department in alerting students to threats. However, the department is not in the wrong from a legal standpoint. 

Daniel said there are multiple reasons behind the department’s determination of threats as worthy of an alert and the speed at which they are distributed to students. 

Last October, hours after USF won its homecoming football game over Syracuse, USF athletes Benjamin Knox and Lamar Robbins were accused of discharging a gun on campus in celebration of the victory. 

According to UP reports, the two fired several shots from a .45-caliber handgun that struck the exterior of the Holly D residence hall, where one of the players lived. 

The guns were discharged shortly before 4 a.m., yet students didn’t receive an alert until nearly 12 hours later. 

Giovanni Mercado, a junior majoring in psychology, was living in the Kosove dorm when the gunshots went off across the street. 

“Luckily, I was back home that day,” Mercado said. “If I had been at my dorm, I would have heard the gunshots and assumed something was happening. I would’ve immediately grabbed my phone to wait for an alert.”

Mercado recalled his frustration at receiving the text notification the following afternoon. He said he wished they had sent out a text informing students there was no immediate threat rather than adopting “radio silence.” 

Daniel said there is an exception to the Clery Act that allows the police to withhold an alert if the notification could disrupt or hinder efforts to get the situation under control. According to Daniel, the police feared a notification would intensify the situation because they were not sure where the shooter was. 

“We feared sending a notification,” he said of the incident. “We do know in the case of Christopher Bates — north of campus, when that was going on — he became aware of us looking for him based on the emergency notification, which actually caused him to flee where he was and get into the shootout with the sheriff’s office.

“We have to make sure we’re not creating more harm by sending the information out.”

Some students, however, believe there have been several instances where UP failed to properly notify them of crimes and threats on campus. 

“If there was a bomb threat in a building, I’m not going to let everyone know after it blows up,” said Michael Gregory, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering. 

“Panic or not, at least students would leave or avoid the area. I think they should’ve said something.”

Gregory also felt UP should be more active in alerting students when there are multiple thefts on campus, such as the string of five vehicle burglaries that took place on Sept. 27 in various parking lots around campus.

He said he understood that frequent texts may annoy students, but they are necessary for a safe community.

“I would rather it be a false alarm than they just didn’t tell me fast enough,” Gregory said. 

The selective notification system is not unique to USF. Both the University of Florida’s and Florida State’s campus police departments follow similar practices. 

There are also multiple systems utilized to alert students, and UP is not in charge of deciding every time what goes out. 

For example, if housing decides something that happened on campus warrants an alert they have the ability to send that information out to students via their own system, regardless of if UP notified the public or not. 

All universities also face the dilemma of keeping their students informed without causing unnecessary panic. 

At FSU, 157 alerts were issued in 2015. Of those, 23 were sent via Full EZ Button, which activates all of the 37 available alert systems including text, email, social media and alert pages, according to the FSU Alert Emergency Notification and Warning System’s Annual Report. 

Not all students have complaints with the notifications. 

Olusegun Akinwolere, a senior majoring in behavioral healthcare, recalled a time the notification system put him at ease despite a looming threat. 

“I actually have class near the public health buildings and there was someone in that area who had a gun — I think it was last year,” Akinwolere said. “That notification came up, I was alerted about that, and I was pretty happy.”

Akinwolere said he realizes that many students communicate every threat or notification they receive with their parents. He said he trusts UP’s judgment in determining how much information they relay to the public in order to prevent frightening students and whoever else receives the alerts. 

Akinwolere added he would like to receive more frequent texts.

“I think (the notification system) is OK,” he said. “I just want to know more information. I think it’s a bit daunting seeing how many people call in. 

“There should definitely be a middle ground.”

Daniel said social media might be the answer to getting around overloading students with information while still keeping them informed. 

After learning students are unhappy with the current system, Daniel said UP would continue to work on getting more active online to be able to notify students of things that might not qualify for a campus-wide alert. 

However, Daniel recommends students sign up for the variety of services offered by the police. 

MoBull Messenger — the fastest method used to notify students — sends alert texts. The Rave Guardian app allows students to turn their smartphone into a safety device. And following UP on Facebook and Twitter helps keep them informed of threats that may not warrant a text or email alert. 

Louisa Flaig, a junior majoring in integrative animal biology, thinks Facebook may be the fastest way to get information out to a large number of people. She suggested that the university should add UP to each of the individual “USF Class of” pages and post less-serious alerts there.

She also suggested adding a threat-alert level to each notification — ‘red’ for bomb threats or a gunman on campus, ‘yellow’ for burglaries and ‘green’ for flashers — which could help students immediately gauge how serious the danger is. 

Flaig said she believes being more interactive with students also will help the overall perception of the department. 

“I think maybe they should do something at Bull Market,” she said. “I think they should interact with the students, tell them what services they have … When they write the stupid citations for walking on the crosswalks when it doesn’t say to walk, it makes me want to tell them to eff-off. Let us know they’re more worried about our safety instead of just writing citations.”

For Mercado, the current system is not satisfactory. Though he said he’s not sure what the solution is, he’s confident there must be a better way to keep students informed.

“Even if it disrupts 10 minutes out of someone’s day, it’s better to inform the students so they have the option to go out of their way to avoid whatever the threat may be than to not inform them at all,” Mercado said. 

“There needs to be some type of improvement.”