In the first hours of the University of Michigan’s West Quad Residence Hall’s armed robbery in early December, residents and staff grew concerned with the sudden unexplained presence of police vehicles outside of the dorm and officers in the building. Many residents turned to social media and their friends to make sense of the situation, and very rapidly, a rumor about an active shooter spread through campus. Fortunately for residents, the matter was determined to be a robbery — not an active shooter situation — but the incident has students calling for a notification system that will advise the community about developing stories.
For many college campuses across the U.S., recent incidents have community members asking if relaying important information to students, faculty and community members as it develops should take precedence over communicating developed crime alerts hours after the crime has occurred. The verification process is lengthy and police departments are often afraid of spreading misinformation by reporting facts unless they are absolutely certain.
There are tips on the DPSS website about what to do in an emergency, such as the “Run, Hide, Fight” strategy if an active attacker enters campus. DPSS also launched a new smartphone app in 2017 which provides DPSS news and crime alerts.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been criticized for its current alert system as well. The university’s newspaper published an article earlier this month citing problems with their notification system, AlertCarolina, after an alert was sent 45 minutes after an explosion near campus.
Currently, all students and faculty are automatically signed up to receive emergency alerts through their University email. However, users have to manually register for emergency alerts to receive texts through the Michigan app or as text messages on their mobile devices. For text alerts, opting-in requires that users enter the Wolverine Access site online to sign up for alerts.
However, many students have not seen an incentive to download either Michigan or DPSS application, other than searching for dining hall information and bus schedules, unlike the Canvas app, which allows students to check assignments and homework for classes.
Kinesiology freshman Matthew Jo, a West Quad resident, had been walking with his friends to the dorm when one of his friends received a text message from another resident alerting them to the presence of a shooter.
“I think the text said, ‘I heard there was a shooter in West Quad. Are you ok?’” Jo said.
After the incident was reported to the police, the Division of Public Safety and Security sent out a crime alert via email to students and faculty about an armed robbery in West Quad. The crime alert was not sent out until 2:00 a.m., hours after the robbery had occurred at 10:00 p.m., according to DPSS.
In a prior statement about the robbery, DPSS said they were not notified of the incident until 30 minutes after it occurred.
DPSS spokeswoman Diane Brown clarified the difference between crime alerts, which are sent through email, and emergency alerts, which can be delivered as push notifications through the Michigan App or optional text alerts through Wolverine Access. She explained emergency alerts are reserved for urgent situations that require immediate community action.
“If we have confirmed reports of some kind of imminent emergency, where we believe a majority of our campus needs to take immediate action for their safety, we would issue an emergency alert,” Brown said. “When I said we need a confirmed report, the confirmation doesn’t necessarily mean that a police officer has gone to that location, and said ‘Yes, this is what’s happened.’ But we need to have something more than someone saying, ‘You know I heard this sound in the parking structure and it sort of sounded like gunfire but it could have been a car backfiring.’”
Brown explained there was a delay in emailing of the crime alert because police quickly determinde there was no imminent threat to the community. She also said in the West Quad robbery DPSS had received reports that the suspects had left the building.
“There is a lot of difference between somebody having possession of a weapon and somebody having possession of a weapon, brandishing it, threatening people, shooting people, (and) running around,” Brown said.
Jo said he was concerned no message from a person of authority relayed information to students during the West Quad incident. He cited the delayed crime alerts as a communication issue between DPSS and the community and suggested that DPSS should include on-going or developing story alerts.
“I think that was what was frustrating for us was not really knowing,” Jo said. “I think getting that crime alert out while something is actually happening instead of when it’s already dealt with.”
Business freshman Prathik Hosalli said he shared Jo’s frustration with being left in the dark during the West Quad incident. He said if DPSS improved their overall channels of communication with University members, he would feel even safer on campus than he already does.
“I think more than anything it’s just transparency and communication by the police department,” Hosalli said. “However, I don’t feel unsafe in West Quad, I don’t feel unsafe on campus, so I think the University does a pretty great job with that.”
LSA freshman Nicole Fraija agrees DPSS could do a better job of informing students about developing situations. She believes this would put residents at ease.
“I think the more information we have, the better we feel about the situation,” Fraija said. “Because bad situations can happen anywhere, but if you have someone telling you what’s happening it’s going to make it better to deal with it and know what’s going on.”
Hosalli echoed Fraija’s sentiments and said more continuous updates as information is confirmed would be appreciated in emergency situations.
“Definitely there could be a little bit more of a focus on development,” Hosalli said. “Either the current facts they know of, then at least we’re aware of that, and then if there’s any other developments, it becomes a little more clear.”