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, and UTPD is standing behind its decision to release the information.
During the response to the threat, which included a campus-wide evacuation, 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-Qaida. A source close to the situation, who asked not to be named because of the confidential information provided, 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 8:35 a.m., according to the source. The caller told an employee he was not a UT student, and bombs on campus were going to go 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 bombs were 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.”
English professor Snehal Shingavi said it was possible Arab or Muslim students would face bias or discrimination because of the University’s statement. Shingavi said he does not see why the University needed to release information regarding the caller’s accent. Through Twitter, he invited students to come to his class on Islamophobia. His class meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 2:00 p.m. in Parlin Hall 206.
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.
Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and Texas Student Media contracted employee, said he has completed training for bomb threat response and understands why the caller’s accent is important information to collect as part of an investigation.
“You’re trained to pick up on context clues in that kind of situation,” Redding said. “In light of what’s going on internationally, someone saying they are affiliated with al-Qaida with a Middle Eastern accent may be more credible. You can’t ignore any detail that can be relevant to an investigation, but the decision to release the information is kind of splitting hairs.”
Redding said he was not sure about the thought process behind releasing the description.
UTPD chief Robert Dahlstrom said the department 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,” Dahlstrom said.
He said asking for a description of a caller’s voice is a standard response procedure.