An Oct. 10 armed robbery in the 2600 block of W. Michigan Ave. sparked another conversation in the highly contested debate regarding the WMU Alert System. While an alert was not sent out because it was off-campus property, the Western Michigan University Public Safety Twitter account posted a message of caution.
WMU as well as the Department of Public Safety received quite a bit of backlash after the Feb. 2016 Kalamazoo Uber shooting, and the Dec. 2016 homicide at SoHo Apartments on Howard Street.
Students wanted all the information before DPS was able to connect the dots on James Dalton’s shootings that killed six people. Students living off campus wanted to know about dangers close to their homes. All this is understandable, said Scott Merlo, DPS chief.
Unfortunately, Merlo does not have jurisdiction over the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, which makes it difficult, and near-impossible to send alerts about off-campus matters.
“It's easy to send out information for things that happen on-campus because we’re intimately involved and we’re the ones investigating or responding,” Merlo said. “But outside the city, oftentimes we might not know any of the details other than that they’re [KPS] responding to an incident. I don’t know if it's a credible source or any other information, something that we would actually need to send out a timely warning under the alert system, so I just simply send something out on Twitter.”
The Twitter account was created in February 2016, but wasn’t used for safety alerts until January 2017.
After the Uber shooting, former WMU President John Dunn formed a campus wide Safety and Communications Committee made up of faculty, staff and students to look at how WMU communicates about safety issues, said Cheryl Roland, University spokeswoman.
“We came up with this really detailed list of recommendations that were pegged on the things we want to do, the things we have to do, the things the students on the committee wanted to see in terms of areas covered, and the types of services in the community that might be underutilized,” Roland said.
Roland remembers the students on the committee suggesting the use of a Twitter account.
“They concurred that we should keep Rave to be just in the confines of the campus community because Scott’s folks don't have jurisdiction outside of that, but we should have something that alerted students, and gave them as much information that we might have,” Roland said.
While the Alert System aims to be a call for students to take action that will keep them safe, the Twitter account simply keeps followers informed, said Merlo. Many members of the community do not know this, but DPS will send WMU Alerts regarding off-campus incidents if they feel it could possibly affect campus.
“If we have any credible information that those individuals are coming toward campus or on campus, we have to send it out,” Merlo said. “But conversely, if we have information that they’re not coming toward campus, and it's not on our geography, we send out a tweet instead.”
This is similar to practices of other campus safety departments in the state such as WMU’s rival, Central Michigan University.
“Our thought is ‘more is better,’” Lt. Cameron Wassman of CMU police said. “If there is something that could impact the safety of the University community, we think it's important to get that information out there, and even if you are not physically located in close proximity to CMU, we feel that it's important that you do get that information.”
Similarly to WMU, Central makes no millage ring around the University that determines off-campus alerts.
“If something happens on our campus, we're going to be sending out an alert. If it's something that happens off campus, within the city limits, if it's an armed robbery, something involving a weapon, we’ll send an alert out as well,” Wassman said. “Unfortunately the incident in Kalamazoo a couple years ago is one of the things that really made us take a look at how we’re doing those sorts of things.”
Looking forward, the WMU public safety Twitter account is a great resource for families who cannot sign up for the alert system, as well as students.
“Especially for people living off campus, we’ll let you know as soon as we know,” Merlo said.
Roland and Merlo hope to strategize a new way to get the word out about the Twitter account so more students can have the resources in their arsenal. Find WMU Public Safety on Twitter @WMUPublicSafety.