Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that “no information was ever posted to the department’s website about the incident.” It should have said that, after the department posted the contents of its follow-up e-mail on its website, no additional information was posted.
Stanford Department of Public Safety Chief Laura Wilson offered an explanation this week for the text message students got early Sunday morning alerting them that, after an alleged car burglary on campus an hour and 48 minutes earlier, two suspects with a gun may still have been on campus.
Wilson said the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges and universities to make timely warnings to the community of specific ongoing criminal threats, prompted the department to send the alert on Sunday.
The text message came in the chilly dark of Sunday, hours after Admit Weekend had ended, at 1:41 a.m. in all capital letters: “AlertSU: Auto burglary near Roble @ 12:09AM. Two male suspects. Firearm seen. More info to be posted soon at police.stanford.edu.”
Wilson said that the department’s decision to call it an “ongoing threat” was a “judgment call.”
“When the police learned that the reporting party had observed a firearm and was confident in his observation, we thought it was prudent to notify the student community about the incident because we know that many of our students are still active in the early morning hours, especially on the weekends,” Wilson wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.
After two hours of searching, and despite “several” tips in response to the text message, police officers never located the suspects, who were reported by a student and left in a darkly colored Honda Accord or Civic, Wilson said.
“What we were trying to convey in the text… is where to go to obtain more information,” said Wilson, who would only communicate by e-mail with The Daily, on Tuesday. “No additional information has been posted to the webpage because there really isn’t much more to add.”
The department sent an e-mail to the “greater population” of faculty, staff and students 22 minutes after the text message with a synopsis of the burglary and a description of the suspects.
It said a student had verbally confronted two suspects in the Roble parking lot who had allegedly broken into the student’s vehicle.
“After conducting a search of the area for the suspects, police learned from the student that he had seen the barrel of a silver firearm in the pocket of the sweatshirt of suspect #1,” the e-mail read.
It encouraged readers to call 911 or the non-emergency police line with information.
Wilson said the department decided to text students, rather than call them, to avoid waking students who were sleeping “and thus unlikely to encounter the suspects.”
She said the department thought it “wise” to notify faculty and staff, who were contacted by e-mail.
Asked how the department determines when a warning is timely, Wilson said “it is situationally dependent… sending a text message long after the threat is thought to have passed defeats the intended purpose of sending the text.”
The AlertSU system was born in April 2008, when Stanford contracted with Blackboard Connect Inc. to deliver mass notifications “in the event of a major emergency on campus,” the University said at the time.
The Department of Public Safety and several top administrators have authority to use the system.
Wilson acknowledged that frequent use could diminish the system’s effectiveness. It is tested twice a year and was last used to notify people of a power outage on campus on Jan. 19.
She said the University is considering creating a tiered system of alerts that would indicate different threat levels.
“The bottom line is that there will be a continual balancing act and people will have their own opinions about what should and should not be conveyed and through what mechanism,” Wilson said.
“Here’s the question I ask myself when trying to evaluate all the potential outcomes,” she added. “‘If we do not send an alert and someone’s hurt, would a reasonable person think that the decision was sound?’”
Eric Messinger contributed to this report.