UTPD expands text message alerts to off-campus incidents

Meara Isenberg

Multiple texts lit up students’ phone screens Friday as they followed the frenzy of two related Subway robberies in West Campus.

The UT Police Department, who issues the emergency text alerts students receive, isn’t legally obligated to inform students of incidents in West Campus, but the robbery alerts were no anomaly.

In an effort to increase safety, the department has expanded the range of its text alerts to cover off-campus incidents this semester.

“During this past year, a lot of people were concerned about incidents that actually occurred off campus,” UTPD Police Chief David Carter said. “We want to give as much information as we possibly can that is responsive to what we believe our community needs, especially if we pick up on something that could actually be a threat.”

The Clery Act is a federal law that requires college police departments to provide information on serious nature crimes that occur on or in close proximity to campus.

Carter said although they are only legally obligated to send emergency alerts regarding incidents a block or less away from the University, the department recognized many students that commute to campus from surrounding areas are potentially at risk.

“There have been a lot of incidents that have occurred off campus, not technically within that (required) reporting area,” Carter said. “We started looking at those kinds of incidents and finding out there’s no requirement to put out that information, but in certain instances, it’s of value for the community to be aware.”

Carter said UTPD will work with Austin Police Department to alert students of incidences that are deemed an ongoing threat.

Joell Sullivan-McNew, vice president of the nonprofit Safehorns, said this is an issue the organization has pushed for.

“Not only did we ask the University to report all crime that impacts you, we wanted them to relay information to you beyond the Clery Act, which we are grateful now that they are going to do that,” Sullivan-McNew said.

Sullivan-McNew said Safehorns would like a parent opt-in feature for the text message alerts, but after students receive messages so as to not slow down the process.

Last semester there was student backlash because some text alerts were sent up to 20 minutes after off-campus incidences or not at all.

Advertising junior Fabiana Pena Feeney said she has recently seen more text alerts than usual.

“This is an area where a lot of students live, so we need to be informed of what’s happening off campus,” Pena Feeney said. “I think it’s great being in the loop of what’s happening, it makes you feel safer.”

Carter said the new boundaries are 30th Street to the north, south to 15th Street, east to Poquito Street and all the way to Lamar Boulevard in West Campus. However, he acknowledges that “any time you come up with a boundary, there is always going to be something that happens just across the street.”

“We feel like the boundaries that are set now are actually put out pretty far from where the majority of students will be walking from,” Carter said. “But we are going to evaluate it and see if this hopefully provides a value to our student community, and if we need to change, we will.”