UTPD says campus stabbing highlights need for more dispatchers

An employee at the UTPD dispatch center takes a phone call. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)
An employee at the UTPD dispatch center takes a phone call. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On the average Monday, the University of Texas at Austin Police Department receives around 175 calls, but on Monday, May 1, when a man started going on a stabbing rampage, the university says its dispatchers fielded more than 500 calls within minutes. While those calls were coming in, there were only two dispatchers on the other end.

“We certainly recognize today that on that particular day our system was not robust enough to do what we needed it to do,” UTPD Chief of Police David Carter said. “By simply having two dispatchers in that [UT dispatch] center at that particular time really put us in a position where we really had to focus on those life-saving efforts first, then as soon as we possibly could to get out information.”

Carter says he’s been asking for a third dispatcher for years, but the recent campus crisis is highlighting the immediate need for extra staff. On the day of the stabbing, UTPD had upped their staffing levels already in anticipation of possible May Day protests. Still, there were only two dispatchers working at the center that day, which is standard.

While the dispatchers were busy answering the 911 calls, managing the radios and coordinating officers, they weren’t able to send out an emergency alert to the university community. “Our own protocol is basically we want to try and get information out on a text within five minutes, and we were not able to do that on that particular day, and obviously we received some criticism for that, not getting that information out as quickly,” Carter explained.

Students told KXAN the first alert they received about the incident from UT was 2:12 p.m., which was nearly 30 minutes after the stabbing was reported to 911. Then another follow-up alert was sent around 2:26 p.m.

He noted that another factor in the delayed alert was that the suspect, Kendrex White, was apprehended within minutes. White’s arrest downgraded the incident from a high priority “red” level emergency to a timely warning “yellow” level threat. UTPD explained that a “red” level threat requires an immediate text alert to campus, a “yellow” level threat does not and typically only comes with an email alert or a post on social media.

“But again it’s really important to understand, job number one is to address the situation at hand, stop the harm from occurring and to save lives, and that was what our dispatchers are really focused on at that particular time,” Carter said.

Carter said that there has been plenty of debriefing within his department after the stabbings. He said the two main areas he wants to focus on are getting a third dispatcher and working with the university to improve campus emergency communication. For example, he explained that UTPD dispatchers cannot monitor social media and respond to issues reported to them solely based on social media, they need help from campus partners to address concerns posted online.

Carter has identified grants and potential funding which may help pay for his priority items, but he explained that these changes would need to be approved by the university. Additionally, Carter says the dispatch system at UTPD is outdated and they’re looking to purchase a new system.

UT Student Government shared their support for bringing in a new UTPD dispatch system and more dispatchers in a list of action items they published in response to the stabbing attack. Student body Vice President Micky Wolf explained that these action items, one of which is improving the text message alert system, are all things the university leaders have committed to working on.

“I would say a lot of students would have liked to see a quicker response time, we would agree, and the university has said as much,” Wolf said. “And the text message alert system definitely needs to be quicker.”

UT Student Government Chief of Santiago Rosales added that having a dispatcher to help with campus alerts would help the University get out information faster than the social media rumor cycle.

“[Having another dispatcher] fits in with what students want: speedy communication that is accurate and lets students know what they should be doing during any situation,” Rosales said.

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