Campus alert system federally mandated

Throughout the year, Butler University faculty, staff and students receive a sprinkling of “timely warnings” and emergency alert notifications regarding crime and other safety related events on campus.

After a string of thefts hit Butler’s campus in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, Butler University Police Department released a “timely warning” at 7:16 a.m., detailing the crimes that had occurred more than six hours earlier.

It may seem that the crimes, which, according to the e-mail, included a “male suspect peeping into the window” of a student’s off-campus house, a “residential entry at 12:50 a.m.” and a suspect breaking into a car, just north of the location of the previous crimes, would warrant a more immediate alert to students who may be in the area.

However, according to BUPD Chief of Police Ben Hunter, there is a big difference between “timely warnings” and emergency notifications, and the release of each is not simply a judgment call. It is federal law.

For example, emergency notifications were released last year after a suspicious smell was discovered in Ross Hall.

“We have to work within what the federal law tells us,” Hunter said. “In the case of the chemical leak in Ross Hall, because of the federal law, I had to send out an emergency notification.”

Hunter said he remembers getting a complaint after the emergency notification about a chemical smell in Ross Hall was sent out, however he said the alternative is to take a fine of more than $25,000 per student in the affected building if an emergency alert is not sent out.

A federal law that mandated university police or security notify students, faculty and staff of certain events came about after the shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, Hunter said.

According to the Department of Public Safety: University Police General Orders Annual Safety Report/Clery Act Compliance, “Situations where a ‘timely warning’ will be issued may be difficult to predict.”

It goes on to list several situations in which a “timely warning” may be sent out, including crimes occurring on or around campus “over a frequent period,” hate crimes, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department action or response on or around campus and weather alerts that may affect campus.

In terms of emergency notifications, the document states, “Emergency notifications will be issued whenever there is a threat to the campus community. The threat may be on or off-campus near the Butler Community.”

Situations listed in the document deeming an emergency notification include armed suspects around the campus area, a shooting on or near campus, fires, bomb threats or explosions on or around campus, severe weather, IMPD action or response on or around campus or a hostage situation.

Assistant Police Chief Andrew Ryan said emergency notifications are sent out in the event that there is an immediate or pending threat to campus.

But what about the six-plus hours between the time of the incidents on Sept. 15 and the arrival of the “timely warning” in the inboxes of students, faculty and staff across campus?

“If you’re in the thralls of an investigation and you’re responding, I would have taken an officer off the street to send a ‘timely warning,’” Hunter said. “It takes a body away from that incident.”

Both Hunter and Ryan said there is some judgment involved in the release of a “timely warning” or an emergency notification unless it is a clear-cut situation such as a shooting or other immediate threat to the Butler community.

“If we were to send out an emergency notification every time there was a suspicious person on campus, they would go out constantly,” Hunter said. “We get so many calls about suspicious people, which isn’t a bad thing, but if we sent out a notification for each one, students would say ‘Oh, it’s just another message from BUPD’ and ignore it.

“We don’t want students to think we’re ‘crying wolf.’”

If a perimeter is established around the area of the crime and the suspect is within those bounds, in custody of police or known to be headed away from campus, it does not pose any immediate danger, Hunter said. It will most likely go out as a “timely warning,” not an emergency notification.

“We send an emergency notification so you know ‘this is what’s happening now and this is what we need you to do,’” Hunter said. “A ‘timely warning’ is merely letting you know that an incident occurred that could affect you that is not an immediate threat to you.”

Hunter said this creates situational awareness for students, though it is not meant to scare.

“We only need to let you know there has been an incident that has been contained,” Hunter said. “Included in that ‘timely warning’ is also crime watch tips, so we use those as a tool as well to remind students of the resources around them to help look out for and prevent crime.”

Daily crime reports, tips and warnings can be found on BUPD’s website.

“Everything that students and staff and faculty should know gets put on the website and it’s usually done so in a pretty timely fashion,” Hunter said.

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