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.
Tip by text: Security leads sent to campus police
- Man using marijuana in car parked on campus
- Hazardous road conditions
- Suspicious person on campus
- Disorderly conduct by groups of students
- Vehicle accidents
- Theft of textbooks
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.
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.
After faculty members reported the missing textbooks, campus police set up a surveillance video camera, took the suspect’s picture, and sent the photo out on the campus email system.
The police quickly received several anonymous tips via phone, email, and texting that identified the suspect, and arrested him. “It just goes to show you that people will respond to you in different ways, so having a number of ways for people to communicate with you is good,” says Buddy Peaster, the university’s police chief.
Campus security apps
Another way for a campus community to be the “eyes and ears” of public safety is through a mobile app. The advantage of an app is that students, faculty, or staff do not need to remember a specific phone number to text in a crime tip.
Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania opted last fall to purchase a smartphone app called EmergenSee U rather than install more security cameras or blue light phones around campus. Available as a free download, the app allows students, faculty, and staff to send a message or video to the public safety department if they see something suspicious.
Connected to a GPS system, the service provides a map to the dispatcher showing where the app was launched. The dispatcher can communicate with the tipster and someone can follow the route if the person is unable to send a text.
One drawback to the application is that a small percentage of students do not have smartphones, but the university has a texting alert system for other cell phone users. Yet as Tom Rambo, the assistant vice president for student affairs and director of public safety, points out, “More people are getting smartphones so this texting application seemed to be appropriate for the future.”
A mobile app can also monitor the route of a student, employee, or faculty member on campus. Northeastern State University in Oklahoma implemented the application GuardianSentral from Anyware Mobile Solutions, which allows cell phone users to hit a “Follow Me” button and deactivate it when they arrive at their destination.
“If students need a safety escort from the library back to the residence halls but don’t necessarily want an officer to follow them, it allows the dispatcher to follow them from point A to point B until they deactivate the app,” says Patti Buhl, the university’s public safety director.
RaveGuardian from Rave Mobile Safety works similarly. Students using it can set a timer that automatically notifies campus safety if he or she needs assistance.
Other mobile apps that have been introduced recently include Campus Sentinel from Margolis Healy & Associates, which allows anonymous tips; and In Case of Crisis from Irving Burton Associates, which offers one-tap contact for calling in emergencies.
Calling 911 during an emergency, however, is still the best option, says Gary Margolis, president and CEO of Campus Sentinel. “We want to educate people that if you need police help, you dial 911,” he says. “You don’t send them a text message. But on the other hand, if you’re in danger and you can’t make a phone call, you send a text.”
While most students are carrying smartphones, the use of texting services and mobile apps to report crimes on campuses is relatively low. At West Texas A&M University, the police department has received about a dozen text messages through its uTip service in the first two years of operation. The University of South Florida has received 50 to 60 tips through the Rave EyeWitness program in the past two years.
What may be preventing higher usage of these services is the unwillingness among students to report their classmates to the police.
When a student was robbed at 2 a.m. near an academic building at Middle Tennessee State, police discovered there were two bystanders who watched the incident but never reported it to authorities.
“The biggest hurdle for us isn’t designing a system for witnesses to feel more comfortable passing along information to our police department,” says Peaster of Middle Tennessee State. “It’s motivating people—especially young people—to contact us with relevant information and overcoming the feeling that they are ‘snitches.’ ”
What may resolve this problem is educating campus communities to share information with the police and publicizing the texting and app services more frequently.
Says Rambo of Susquehanna, “If there were something a little more serious going on, they may use it—if they see underage drinking, I don’t believe they would report another student, but if they saw an intruder robbing a student or harming someone, I believe they would.”
Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based writer.