Magazine article University Business

Safety in Hand: Security Systems Capitalize on the Prevalence of Mobile Devices on Campus, Allowing the Whole Community to Be Campus Safety's Eyes and Ears

Magazine article University Business

Safety in Hand: Security Systems Capitalize on the Prevalence of Mobile Devices on Campus, Allowing the Whole Community to Be Campus Safety's Eyes and Ears

Article excerpt

Police officers at the University of South Florida sprung into action one afternoon last February when a text message flashed on a computer screen at the campus 911 operations center, alerting the dispatcher that a student had a .25-caliber pistol in his dorm room.

After receiving the report, the dispatcher texted the anonymous tipster a few questions and then sent university police to the residence hall, where they confiscated the weapon and arrested the 20-year-old biology major. University of South Florida policy prohibits the use, storage, and possession of weapons on campus property.

"We've all seen the news stories in the press so I think we take any report of a firearm on campus as a threat, whether or not this individual had any intention of using it," says Christopher Akin, the university's director of web services, who oversees emergency communications.

The tip was sent via Rave EyeWitness, a system from Rave Mobile Safety implemented at the university in 2011. Without the service in place, the police may have never found the weapon.

Most colleges and universities across the country average between 1.8 and 3 full-time security officers per 1,000 students, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice study. To compensate for this limited police presence, a growing number of institutions are launching two-way texting services and special cell phone apps to give students, faculty, and staff another tool to report suspicious activity.

Students have long been able to email or call in crime tips, but newer security systems capitalize on the ubiquity of mobile devices. An annual survey of Ball State University students conducted by its Institute for Mobile Media Research shows that 73 percent of students of the Indiana school were using smartphones in early 2013, compared to 27 percent in 2009.

Being connected to security by phone or through a quick text--particularly with students likely texting 100 times a day anyhow--is convenient for them, says Jennie Breister, a spokesperson for Blackboard Connect, which introduced the campus security texting service TipTxt last May.

Anonymous Texting

Two-way texting applications are an outgrowth of the emergency communications systems universities implemented in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. In the past few years, companies providing emergency communications to universities have added two-way texting as an extra service, generally at a cost ranging from $2,000 to $7,000 annually, based on enrollment.

To text in an anonymous crime tip, a student or college employee enters a preset five- or seven-digit number and a code word, publicized on campus posters and at student orientation sessions. On some campuses, specific locations such as stadiums have their own code words. The dispatcher then responds, letting the tipster know the report was received, and asks questions for further information.

Reporting a crime anonymously may be an advantage for the tipster, but it can make a police investigation more difficult. At West Texas A&M University, for example, police received a message on their security texting system that a man was smoking marijuana in a car parked on campus.

When police located the vehicle, they couldn't determine probable cause to conduct a search. Instead, they launched an independent investigation of the suspect, who was later arrested. The tip could not, however, be used as evidence in the criminal case because police could not identify who texted in the report, says Shawn Burns, the university's police chief.

"The anonymous part of it does affect whether we can make a solid case based on the tip," Burns says, adding that the university uses uTip from Omnilert. "However, the anonymous part of it is also why someone texts in the information. It's kind of a trade-off."

At Middle Tennessee State University, however, several anonymous tips sent on its emergency texting system, Rave EyeWitness, helped police solve a case back in August involving someone who was stealing textbooks from academic buildings to sell at other universities. …

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