UT police urge Longhorns to call 911 before tweeting in emergencies

UT Austin Police say that during a crisis, it's best to call 9-1-1 instead of turning to social media. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.)
UT Austin Police say that during a crisis, it's best to call 9-1-1 instead of turning to social media. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the Longhorn class of 2021 prepares to start the school year, University of Texas at Austin Police Chief David Carter has a message for them:

“I really want to stress the importance of folks calling 911 if there’s an emergency, whether you’re on campus or not,” Carter said.

It may seem like a simple message, but it’s one he says is increasingly forgotten in the digital age.

“We’ve had issues in the past here at UT where crimes were actually in progress and students were communicating via social media that a crime was occurring and the police didn’t find out about it for up to 10 minutes,” Carter explained.

He said in recent years, the campus has been turning to social media more and more to share information with police, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Carter said his officers will periodically check social media accounts for tips, but when there is a crisis at hand, messages can get lost on social media.

“I think the wave of the future in policing across the country is to find better ways to monitor that, but we simply don’t have the staff to do that 24/7 and we may miss something,” Carter said.

The UT Police Department received funding to add dispatchers starting this September, which will give them more eyes to monitor media accounts. But Carter explained that during a crisis, 911 calls take priority over following tweets. He added that information from 911 calls can be dispatched more quickly to officers in the field than information from social media.

After UT student Haruka Weiser was slain in 2016 and student Harrison Brown killed in the stabbing attack on campus this spring, campus safety and crisis communication are now front and center on the 40 acres.

“With the tragedy we had last spring, the issue of communication was clearly highlighted in terms of the importance of the police receiving information in a timely fashion and also putting information out to the community as well,” Carter said.

The university acknowledged they did not get the information about the stabbing to the students on campus quickly enough. “In that particular moment we were focused on responding to the calls and we received the information via 911. Through the social media platforms, UTPD didn’t have the ability to focus on that.”

Plenty of students were focused on social media, trying to send out information to peers through Snapchat and tweets.

“Back in May there were people Snapchatting the incident that happened, Snapchatting it and just captioning it like it’s like a movie to them, not like someone’s in danger and they need to get in contact with the police,” said UT Student Omeed Bayrami who was on campus the day of the stabbings.

Bayrami said his instinct would be to call 911 if he witnessed a crime on campus.

Ashwani Patel said she would be inclined to call 911 too, but added that the delay in information from UT during the stabbing made more students turn to social media.

Patel says now she doesn’t feel as safe on campus as she used to.

“At first it was like this hasn’t happened in that long maybe it’s just like a one-time occurrence and now [another killing] happened the next year, and so it’s just kind of like what’s going to happen my third year of college?” Patel wondered.

“I think last spring’s tragedy really emphasized the importance of calling 911,” Carter explained. He also noted an instance a couple years ago when transients came on campus and engaged in a fight with knives. In that instance, students were communicating about the crime over social media, so it had gone on for a while before police were notified.

“Social media has definitely changed the world in terms of how people communicate and how they transmit information, the police basically at the end of the day have to catch up, and we’re not there yet,” Carter said. “We still need folks to recognize, call us, call 911 first, then share.”

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