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AlertSU timing raises questions

A school-wide alert reporting an incident of sexual battery last Wednesday has drawn questions about the timeliness and effectiveness of the Stanford University Department of Public Safety’s (SUDPS) emergency notification policies. Stanford Chief of Police Laura Wilson, however, maintains that the alert system helps to notify community members of potential risks and can lead to the resolution of crimes.

On Wednesday, Sept. 12, the SUDPS issued an AlertSU notifying the community that a sexual battery had occurred by Manzanita Field.

The alert read, “A female student reported at 4:55 p.m. that on Wednesday afternoon (9/12/12) at approximately 1:20 p.m., she was groped from behind by an unknown male while walking along the sidewalk by Manzanita Field, near the intersection of Campus Drive and Serra Street.”

Issued at 6:30 p.m., the alert came approximately an hour and half after the crime was reported, and five hours after the incident had taken place.

Wilson said that often the reason why SUDPS AlertSU notifications are sent out so long after a crime is committed is because the victims do not report the crime to the police immediately.

“The campus community is upset with us if we don’t report the crime right after it happens, but then if we explain that the victim did not report the crime, we’re victim blaming,” Wilson said. “We get criticism either way and we accept that.”

According to Wilson, the alerts try to give as much information about the crime as possible, as well as a detailed description of the perpetrator. The reasoning behind this is twofold. Wilson said that the AlertSU system helps students to be aware of crimes on campus, so they can be more careful. It also can help SUDPS find leads to solve crimes.

In May of 2011, the SUDPS sent out an alert via text and email that gunshots had been fired in the Lagunita parking lot. This led to a student taking a picture of the shooter’s car and license plate and sending it in to the police, according to Wilson.

Wilson said that the police department often runs into privacy issues when a crime is committed in a small dorm.

“We try to walk the fine line of obeying the law, respecting the victim and alerting the community to the crime that has occurred,” Wilson said.

The AlertSU system is designed in compliance with the Clery Act, a federal regulation that requires all colleges participating in federal financial aid programs to make information about on-campus crimes available to the community.

There are two different types of alerts. The first is called a timely warning. Timely warnings are used for nine different types of crimes. These include criminal homicide, sexual offenses, aggravated assault, burglary, arson, motor vehicle theft and arrests for drug-related offenses and illegal weapon possession. The Department of Education has advised that “timely reporting to the campus community … be decided on a case-by-case basis in light of all the facts surrounding a crime.”

The law requires that a timely warning be sent out to the entire community, which includes students, faculty and staff. Wilson said that there was no way in which SUDPS could contact the parents of students with an AlertSU unless the student specifically listed their home phone number as their contact information for the alert system.

The second type of alert is called an immediate notification, and it does not need to be sent to the entire campus community. SUDPS tries to send the alerts to groups on campus that would be most likely to see the immediate notification.

“The method we choose to use is somewhat dependent on the level of threat to the community,” Wilson said.

However, whereas a timely warning may be sent out up to 24 hours after a crime is committed, an immediate notification must be sent out as soon as the crime is reported.

“We get out the immediate notification as soon as possible after we find out that the threat is credible,” Wilson said. “We shoot for 20 minutes after the crime has been committed.”

Wilson said that SUDPS has been sending out emergency alerts via email and text message, which are now its primary means of sending alerts, for about three years. Although students may feel that they get an overload of AlertSU texts or emails, Wilson said that SUDPS is “not sending out as many alerts as [its] counterparts” at other universities.

Wilson said that the only circumstances in which SUDPS would not send out a timely warning or an immediate notification would be if it would set back an ongoing investigation or if it would “compromise a rescue situation or put a victim in danger.”