UTPD must improve crisis communication

Hillary Ma, Columnist

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the November 12 flipbook.

I knew my Halloween night wasn’t exactly typical. Rather than attending parties and indulging in candy, I was stuck with midnight deadlines. What I wasn’t expecting that night, though, was the string of text messages from friends warning me to not leave my apartment. 

My phone was blowing up with texts and tweets of the same message from just students: “There was a shooting in West Campus. Please stay safe, and don’t go outside.” As students and community members continued to panic, neither Austin nor UT Police Department sent any immediate updates. Misinformation proliferated. Fear became rampant. Sunday night grew into a tragedy for UT students.

In the middle of a crisis, students need active updates from UTPD on the situation at hand to limit panic and the spread of misinformation as much as possible. UT needs to prioritize safety transparency with students in future crises. 

The majority of students’ anxiousness stemmed from the lack of updates from a source of authority on the situation. While verifying and assessing situations takes time, how are students expected to keep calm when an active shooter is on the loose around West Campus and could potentially threaten more lives? 

“With the history of shootings in schools and universities, I felt like it was kind of irresponsible to have such … little attention drawn, while still expecting students to show up to class the next day,” Isabela Salinas, an international relations and global studies sophomore said. “The fact that nothing happened is very lucky on the University’s behalf. They chose to be very irresponsible and handle the situation in a very inadequate way.” 

Salinas is one of many students on campus who felt disappointed by UTPD’s communication with students on the situation. She emphasized that transparency and promptness of communication delivery were two big factors that UTPD lacked that night.

No one was really getting any reputable news,” Salinas said. “Everyone was taking it to social media to talk about it, so having that quick response time would have really helped.” 

Noelle Newton, director of strategic and executive communication for the Office of Campus Security, explained in an email that off-campus events are challenging to give prompt updates on because 911 calls go directly to the Austin Police Department. Furthermore, West Campus is within the Austin Police Department’s jurisdiction, not UTPD’s. Some delays in relaying information to the public within the current department structure are inevitable as police also have to assess and verify the situation. 

“We want to serve a caretaking role … and let (the community) know when things are going on, … even though they’re not on campus proper,” Newton said. “We gave as much as we could, and also realize (West Campus is in the jurisdiction of) Austin Police, and we’re not the main agency. So we’re getting our information from them as much as you can, and pushing it out when we can.”

But the frustrated attitudes from students raise valid criticisms of the police department’s lack of transparency and communication. Students regularly receive updates about burglaries and other minor threats on Guadalupe Street, yet when UTPD is needed most, updates on high-risk situations — like active shootings — are scarce. 

Students deserve full transparency of safety efforts and updates from UTPD, no matter the degree of severity of the event. Halloween is a time when students should be thinking about costume parties and spooky festivities — not gun violence.

Ma is a journalism and Chinese junior from The Woodlands, Texas.