When the University of Texas Police Department received a bomb threat earlier this month, officers quickly went to sweep the area near the Butler School of Music — but did not send a text alert to students about the situation. UTPD is looking into ways to better disseminate information to the community, UTPD Chief David Carter said.
According to Carter, the officers’ first job is to respond to the situation and then decide what they need to communicate to the community.
“What happens when the police respond in this case — there’s the question of, ‘is this is a false alarm or is this real,’” Carter said. “They have to respond as if it’s real to be prepared in case they discover something. If they had discovered anything or had something had been occurring, then that notification system would have kicked in.”
The police are often the only ones who know about threats made against the University, and they do not publicize threats that are not considered legitimate, Carter said. In the case of the threat last week, Carter said the team went to the scene immediately because they did not know how reliable the information was.
“What it really boils down to is do we believe it’s an actual threat,” Carter said. “We’re not going to wait around.“
After this most recent threat, Carter said UTPD determined that alerts will be sent out telling the campus community to avoid certain areas because of police activity during all high-risk investigations, but the department is still looking to improve communication.
“We also understand [people think] ‘Hey the [police are] here; this is scary looking,’ and so we need to find effective ways to let you all know what’s going on,” Carter said. “I think this is kind of one of those things where we would really like our campus community’s help.”
After seeing posts about last week’s bomb threat on UTPD’s social media channels after the situation had been resolved, some parents and students wanted to know why they had not been informed.
Biology junior Kathleen Lee, who didn’t have text messaging during a bomb threat in 2012 and was not alerted to the situation, said she urged her parents to add texting to her phone plan so that she could be aware of future incidents.
“I just think that if something big like that is happening, then I need immediate notification of that — it wasn’t really nice to be caught by surprise,” Lee said. “I really wish that they did notify us. I know that they probably don’t want to incite public panic or anything, but if something like that is happening so close … then you have a right to know.”
Lee said she didn’t know about either of the two threats this semester until she saw her friends posting about it on social media.
The rapid pace of communication through these mediums often means people forget to notify police about situations as they develop, Carter said.
“A lot of times folks start communicating on social media, and they’ll assume that [the police] know about it and we don’t,” Carter said.
UTPD officers try to be judicious when determining when to send out alerts, and to whom the alerts should be sent, according to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey.
“The text messaging system — we already have [more than] 70,000 people signed up for text messages — if we overload that system, if we added every parent that wanted to be alerted, then the messaging would be slower to the people who needed it the fastest,” Posey said.