Initial bomb threat update from University raises concerns about racial bias

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UT community members have raised concerns of racial bias in the UT Police Department’s description of the man behind a false bomb threat to the UT campus Friday morning, and UTPD is standing behind its decision to release the information.  

During the response to the threat, which included the evacuation of thousands of students, faculty and staff from all campus buildings, UT Police Department officers released a statement saying the caller was a man with a Middle Eastern accent who said he was affiliated with Al Qaeda. A source close to the situation said UTPD asked UT employees what the caller sounded like and if he had an accent. Employees told UTPD the caller had a light Middle Eastern accent.

The call came through the University’s general phone line at 8:30 a.m., according to the source. The caller told an employee he was not a UT student, and there were bombs on campus going off in one to two hours.

“The caller said he was calling from a phone booth in Austin, but the number didn’t have a 512 area code,” the source said.

The caller would not say what building the bomb was in, the source said. The caller remained on the phone for more than 10 minutes while UT employees notified UTPD of the call. Police arrived shortly after the caller hung up, the source said.

A UTPD spokesperson said they received notice of the call at 8:43 a.m. The University issued its first emergency notification at 9:53 a.m. via text message to 69,000 people.

The source said UTPD questioned employees and began their investigation immediately. The source was told by a UTPD officer they needed to thoroughly investigate the phone call before panicking students because most bomb threats are “bottomless.”

Associate English professor Snehal Shingavi said the description of the caller provided in the Universtiy statement could cause bias or discrimination toward Arab or Muslim students. Shingavi said he does not see why the University needed to release information regarding the caller’s accent.

During the evacuation, Shingavi tweeted, “All Muslim students at UT, please be safe, and come to my office or contact me if you face any bias or hate or need any support.”

“I want students to know they have access to faculty to help them deal with discrimination and bias they may face on campus,” Shingavi said after the campus had been reopened.

UTPD Chief Robert E. Dahlstrom said they released the description in anticipation of requests from the public.

“If we hadn’t put that out, we would be getting questions to release that information,” he said. “In a situation like this, we try to find out as much as we can about the person behind a bomb threat.” 

Dahlstrom said asking for a description of a caller’s voice is part of the department’s standard response procedures.