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UT students call for better communication from campus police after Halloween shooting in West Campus

University of Texas Police at UT Campus in Austin, Texas on Nov. 6 , 2021.
James Christenson
After a shooting occurred near student housing complexes off campus earlier this week, UT students say they want better communication from university police about potential dangers.

A shooting in West Campus on Halloween night left UT Austin students rattled and calling for changes to the way the UT police department notifies students about crimes on and around campus.

One person unaffiliated with UT was shot and transported to a hospital, according to UTPD. Austin police, who were the primary responders to the shooting because it occurred off campus, have yet to name any suspects in the case.

Confusion and misinformation ran amok on social media once reports of the shooting at 22nd and Pearl streets began around 11:20 p.m. Sunday. Some students said they first got word of the incident from the community-based safety reporting app Citizen. Others said they first heard when concerned friends and family called or texted them.

UT senior Stephanie Sonik was walking in West Campus near Pluckers, about a block from the shooting, at the same time it was happening. She didn’t find out about the shooting until returning to her apartment and receiving calls and texts from loved ones.

“It wasn’t until later on that it kind of sunk in,” Sonik said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I was in a situation where I actually was in danger of being shot.’ And that's kind of a weird thing to grapple with.”

UTPD notified students of the shooting by email around 12:30 a.m., about an hour after it occurred. Sonik said the delayed communication from UTPD was “enraging,” and the email that the department sent was insufficient.

“We didn't get any kind of update except that email, and it was three sentences barely describing anything that was going on,” Sonik said. She said it felt like since the incident didn’t occur on campus and UT students weren’t involved, UTPD didn’t see it as important.

Some students felt they should have been informed about the incident through one of UTPD’s emergency alert text notifications. Colby Menefee, a UT sophomore, said he didn’t know there was a shooting in West Campus until he checked his email the next day.

“It's super frustrating to know that I was out in West Campus and had no idea about this … because they didn't send out emergency texts even though they do that pretty regularly for things like unarmed robberies and other incidents that aren't urgent to students,” Menefee said.

Prior to the shooting Sunday, the last “Incident Alert” text UTPD sent was about a Sept. 1 robbery on Guadalupe Street, complete with updates on the suspect’s description and the assurance that “there was no threat of violence.”

UTPD spokesperson Noelle Newton said the department has a clear protocol outlined on its website for all incident notifications. Texts are sent for “credible, immediate and ongoing” threats to campus and provide “immediate direction” to recipients. Anything beyond that is an email.

Newton said the guidelines can always shift due to student concerns. In internal discussions, UTPD is reevaluating when and why texts are sent out, she said, but the department doesn’t want to overuse the feature either.

“We don't want people to turn a blind eye when something major is happening,” Newton said. “We don't want them to get information fatigue, so that has to be reserved for the ultimate high level.”

As UTPD’s spokesperson, Newton is the person who receives and relays information to students. Usually, the Austin Police Department will alert UTPD when there are incidents in the immediate areas surrounding campus, but for some reason, UT police were not alerted to the shooting Sunday, Newton said.

By the time Newton had gotten all the facts of the shooting, it was too late to send a text that would be helpful because the suspects had left the West Campus area, she said.

“I don't personally like to say ‘no ongoing threat,’ because to me there's still a threat as a suspect on the loose,” Newton said. “But the vehicle drove away. So at that point, it's just an informational email: ‘Hey, this happened so be vigilant, know what to do.’”

Newton said students’ confusion on where to get accurate information during the shooting does signal there’s a communication barrier. She attributes that to the fact that UTPD hasn’t been able to deliver its safety orientation presentations in person the last two years because of the pandemic.

“There, we really have a chance to talk to our students and say, ‘Follow our official account. This is how we release official information. This is when we send out a text,’” Newton said. “And we weren't able to do that these past two years.”

The day following the shooting, UT President Jay Hartzell issued a statement saying he ordered UTPD to beef up security in West Campus. This means more foot and bike patrol officers and illuminated patrol cars will be stationed in the area at night, Newton said.

But some students don’t think this is the right way to respond to their anger. UT senior Meghana Potturu said UT is opting for a “band-aid” approach that doesn’t address student concerns about communication.

“I feel like the university completely missed the mark,” Potturu said. “The communication aspect was more what people were worried about.”

Students are also afraid that increased patrolling will only make those in West Campus feel more unsafe due to a violent history between cops and people of color.

“I'm someone who isn't marginalized by the police and I don't have that fear of them,” Potturu said. “But there are a lot of people in West Campus that are, and I feel like that’s not fair that … they might not feel safe in their own homes when there's police everywhere.”

On Thursday, UTPD Assistant Chief Don Verett sent a campus-wide email saying students will receive more communication from UTPD about off-campus incidents through the LiveSafe at UT Austin app, which can be downloaded. He also said UTPD is working on long-term solutions with UT leaders.

“We hope you never need us. We are here for you if you do,” Verett said in the email.

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