Behind the decision not to notify campus of gunman reports

Freshman Emily Elving was making her way across campus to Mathias after midnight Thursday of third week last block when a Campus Safety officer stopped her, she said.

“…They said ‘just be aware the police are on campus and looking for an active shooter,’ and just to be aware of your surroundings,” Elving said in the Mathias lobby that night. “If there is an active shooter I’m guessing there were shots fired. I probably should have asked more questions.”

Early on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 20, the Colorado Springs Police Department received a call on their non-emergency line from an individual who reported that there was a man with a gun on the Colorado College campus.

The subject hung up before any other information could be gathered.

The CC community was never notified about the reported gunman or the consequential emergency response that ensued. This caused some unsettling feelings among those caught in the chaos that night.

“I think sometimes there is a perception among people about emergency management situations, that as soon as a call comes in, we press a big red button and the notification goes out to everyone,” said Pat Cunningham, Director of Campus Safety. “The assessment is a really big part of that. As soon as we determine there is an imminent threat… then we do start that notification.”

In the case of last week’s gunman call, the notification system wasn’t implemented because the threat was determined to be unfounded.

“We’ll never know if someone saw somebody with what they thought was a gun, or if there was actually someone with a gun who just left the area,” Cunningham said, “but ultimately the determination was there was no imminent threat to the campus community.”

CSPD units responded to campus at about 1 a.m., and joined Campus Safety in a search for the individual, but did not locate the suspect, said Campus Safety. Cunningham said after an extensive search by both the police and campus officials, the call appeared to be false.

What followed, however, was a partial lockdown of campus where students in the Tutt Library and dormitories throughout campus were told to stay inside and keep vigilant. Students were confused about what was actually happening, and many were told conflicting stories by Campus Safety and local police officers.

 

WHEN THE NOTIFICATIONS ARE SENT

“The big thing about emergency mass notification is that it has to be timely, accurate, and useful,” Cunningham said. “One of the things that we saw with other schools shortly after these systems were implemented was that they pushed the button too quickly.”

If the notifications were sent out and the emergency appeared to be false, the message could do more harm than good by causing panic and havoc in the community.

“We want to get information out as timely and as quickly as we can, but it also has to be accurate which means we need to do an assessment,” said Cunningham. “That is the way that our system is set up and how most schools are set up these days.”

When an emergency occurs, Campus Safety first alerts officers to the nature of the call. A supervisor makes an assessment and notifies the Director, at which point, the Director monitors the event and eventually decides whether or not to notify the campus.

The CC Communications department also assists with all-campus messages, such as federally mandated Clery Act alerts which dictate that colleges must lawfully inform their community’s of crimes on and near campus.

“We will only send out an emergency notification when there is an imminent threat to the campus,” said Jane Turnis, Director of Communications.

The question is, however, when does a threat become imminent?

“It’s hard to say because no two situations are the same,” said Cunningham. “I would say in a shooting it would be a situation where we would try to put something out very quickly. But then again, we would still want to get someone at the scene and see if it was an accidental shooting, those happen, or what was the nature here.”

“It’s all really about the nature of the call,” he said.

Campus Safety officials have to assess a situation before making any decisions on how to respond. In the instance of a gunman report, the person could have been on a public sidewalk and not campus, just walking through, or minding their own business, said Cunningham.

Colorado is, after all, an “open carry” state.

The night of the report, it was unclear to Campus Safety whether or not the caller was a third party or the actually suspect, and since the call came on CSPD’s non-emergency line, often used by pranksters, and not the 911 dispatch center, without substantiation it immediately looked suspicious.

“You get something like this where we get a call that there was a guy in a CC parking lot with a gun,” said Cunningham. “Now what does that mean? There was a recent case down in Acacia Park where there was a guy walking around with a gun, and this is an open carry state. He was arrested and said, ‘I can carry a gun in a public area.’”

Campus Safety officers are trained to assess an emergency before reacting to it.

“One of things we tell our officers and supervisors is not to have any pre-conclusions what they are responding to,” Cunningham said. “If the call says that there is someone with a gun you approach with caution, you check the area, but you don’t rush into it at the same time.”

Jumping to conclusions and saying, for instance, that there is an active shooter, said Cunningham, can confuse the situation as the two delineations mean very different things.

“CSPD was on scene for over 40 minutes, and I think they knew very quickly that there wasn’t anyone in the Tutt parking lot with a gun. There wasn’t anyone in the parking lot,” said Cunningham. “They said, ‘Okay, in the three minutes it takes to get a call and get officers on the scene someone could have walked away. Let’s start checking.’”

CAMPUS SAFETY UNAWARE OF COMMUNITY PERCEPTION

 

The night the report of the gunman on campus was sent through the ranks of safety officials at CC, Cunningham was unaware of student concern and perception that there was an “active shooter” or verified emergency situation unfolding.

“That wasn’t information I had at the time,” Cunningham said of the student feedback published in last week’s Catalyst. “The only information I had at the time from the officers was that, ‘We were concerned. We told people to stay put and provide escorts and make sure everything was safe.’”

If students feel they have bad or erroneous information in the future, Cunningham said, they should feel free to contact campus safety.

“Certainly if we had a cry from the campus community asking ‘what was going on here,’ we would have known that there was misinformation out there and corrected that,” he said.

In emergency situations, the CC Communications Department and Campus Safety monitors social media through a service, including Twitter and Facebook, looking for inaccurate information to correct community perceptions that are circulating, according to both offices.

During the Waldo Canyon fire, for instance, campus officials worked to correct community perceptions about what was happening in Colorado Springs and at CC.

“It’s important for us to hear if there is anxiety out there and people can call the communications office too and say, ‘Hey, it would be useful if we all got a message that explained what happened last night,” said Jane Turnis. “…If we don’t hear that people are concerned, we [won’t know].”

During times of tense anxiety, information can sometimes be taken out of context and people can extrapolate from what they are told, according to Cunningham. He said, in the future, officers will try to be more careful with their words in order to most accurately portray an emergency.

“I don’t know exactly what any of the Campus Safety officers said to anyone out there,” said Cunningham. “I know they told me they never mentioned an active shooter and they never said anything about the nature of the call. They just said that CSPD is responding out here and we prefer if everybody stays inside until they check the area and make sure everything is safe.”

The Office of Communication and Campus Safety say the emergency mass notification system will be tested this block and that they are considering providing the community with a presentation on how it works.

If and when students have questions about safety on campus, Cunningham said, they can feel free to call him at anytime.

“That’s why I live on campus,” he said.

Jesse Paul

News Editor

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