One year ago on Feb. 20, a sense of security was lost for many Kalamazoo residents. Uber driver Jason Dalton commenced a seemingly random string of shootings, which left six dead, two injured and brought national media coverage to Kalamazoo.
Though many will be thinking of those those tragic events on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, members of Western Michigan University’s safe ride service Drive Safe Kalamazoo will take time to reflect on how that night affected student safety.
For those working DSK on Feb. 20, 2016, the night started like any other: arranging cars, organizing volunteers and getting phone lines ready for the calls of students in need of free, safe, non-judgmental rides home. However, that changed when, sometime after 11 p.m., one of their drivers called Directors in Charge Jeane Elam and Operator Carly Baldwin to let them know that several police cars were flying down Stadium Drive.
“This was right after one of the first shootings,” Baldwin said. “At this time, [Dalton] was getting closer to campus, and that’s when we found out what was going on.”
In the first few hours after the news broke that Dalton was on the loose, DSK workers were unsure how to act. This was especially true of Ashley Pudas, the public relations director for DSK at the time. Pudas was away at a conference in Kentucky, leaving her to deal with the situation from hundreds of miles away.
“I was scrolling through Twitter, and someone was saying that there was an active shooter in Kalamazoo. My first thought was DSK,” Pudas said. “Later, we turned on the T.V., and it was on CNN. We were like, ‘O.K., now we know this is huge.’”
When it was reported that Dalton had targeted victims by approaching them in their vehicles, Pudas, Elam and Baldwin knew they needed to shut down rides for the night.
“It came to the ethical issue of we are here to provide safe rides for our students, but we needed to think of the safety of our drivers as well,” Elam said.
After that decision was made with the advisement of DSK’s risk management director, Elam instructed drivers to complete their current rides and come back to the office. Elam and Baldwin then called everyone in the ride queue and told them that DSK could no longer provide them a ride, and advised them to get to a safe place. Elam and Baldwin would remain in the office until 3 a.m. that night advising students to get to safety as DSK was no long operating their services. From Kentucky, Pudas made the situation known via social media.
“We told all our patrons to stay inside, do everything you can to stay inside,” Elam said. “Everyone was really understanding.”
The night was particularly difficult for the drivers who were on the road as the events of the shootings were unfolding. One driver believed to have had seen one of the victims being taken away in a body bag, while another had been in the parking lot of the Stadium Drive Kia dealership just after the shooting deaths of Richard and Tyler Smith in that location, Elam said.
“After the shooting at the car dealership, all I could see was police cars and caution tape. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a scene from a movie,” WMU student Margaret Golia, a volunteer driver for DSK on the night of the shootings, said. “I literally had to pull onto a side street and just say a prayer, like, ‘why am I caught in the middle of this right now?’”
Despite being shaken by the situation, Golia did not let the shootings affect her volunteering with DSK.
“I felt like [Elam and Baldwin] made the right decisions that night,” Golia said. “I still feel strongly about offering students a safe, alternative ride home. It’s not going to stop me. It was a total fluke thing that could have happened anywhere.”
While the shootings shocked everyone working that night, they also had a long-term effect on the way DSK thinks about safety. As a direct result of the shootings, DSK added a new clause to their crisis management manual. The clause states in that in a case of emergency within the city of Kalamazoo, “It is under the discretion of the Risk Management Director and the Co-Chairs to decide whether or not to cancel operations to ensure the safety of our volunteers.”
“We never thought a mass shooting was going to occur,” Baldwin said. “Normally, our [risk management plan] was for things that happened inside the car, so we had to go and add some things.”
Despite the fear and tragedy of that night, experiencing the shootings helped DSK with strengthening their risk management management protocols and making sure they are taking every necessary step to keep both drivers and patrons safe, Pudas said.
Currently, DSK is working to cultivate a relationship with the WMU and Kalamazoo police departments, so DSK can receive notifications of potentially dangerous activity outside of the limited reach of WMU Alerts.
“When we have volunteers out on the weekends doing this, we don’t want bad stuff to happen to them,” Elam said.
If a situation like the Kalamazoo shootings were to ever happen again, the way to deal with it is to keep calm and think about the situation logically, Pudas, Elam and Baldwin said. They advised that in order to keep people safe, students in position of leadership during a time like this should stay present and focused in the moment, because they will have time to deal with their personal emotions later
“It’s tricky, because you care about these people. You want to make sure that volunteers are OK and people who need rides are OK, but at the same time you kind of have to distance yourself and look at the big picture,” Baldwin said. “‘How are we going to keep the most people safe?’ That night, it was bringing our volunteers in.”