As Threats to Campus Safety Evolve, UTPD Tries to Stay Ahead of the Curve

 

The glass doors to the Perry-Castañeda Library slide open, and a blast of cool air greets UT police officer John Tesauro as he walks inside. It’s the first day of the fall semester, and students are printing documents and puzzling over the digital map of the building. Tesauro exchanges hellos with the security guard and heads for the elevators. On the fifth floor, he walks the perimeter of the study areas, nodding at students who look up from their laptops. His loop complete, he gets back in the elevator, squeezing in with three students.  

“Can I ask y’all a question?” he says, grinning. “It’s the first day of classes, right? What are y’all studying already?”  

 Everyone laughs. A woman with a backpack explains that she was using the computers to look for information about student organizations.  

 “Are you a freshman?” Tesauro asks. She nods as the doors open. “Have a good semester.”  

 Tesauro heads back into the heat, making his way up the Speedway pedestrian mall through a throng of students. He passes the picnic tables outside Gregory Gym and turns right onto the East Mall, then walks through the congested, recently renamed William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center.  

 Tesauro stops to visit with the student at the front desk of Moore-Hill Hall (“Busy first day? Give us a shout if you need anything”). He checks in with the building manager at Bellmont Hall, who makes sure he knows about the seismic monitoring device geosciences researchers put in the building (“I’ll tell the K-9 officers who do a sweep of the stadium before gameday that it’s not a bomb”). As district representative for this part of campus, he walks a version of this loop two or three times every 10-hour shift, often expanding it, as he did today, to include the PCL, which is just outside his district but sees heavy student traffic. At the beginning of the year he’ll make presentations about safety and host Coffee with a Cop, a low-key forum where students can ask questions, report concerns, and get to know their district representative. He remembers names and majors and gives directions and cracks decent jokes.  

 “One of the things I really like about this department is the chance to go out and talk with the community, students, staff, and faculty,” Tesauro says, “because, honestly, a lot of people have negative views of police now, and we’re doing what we can to change it.”  

 UTPD is working to change more than public perception. As the security threats facing colleges evolve, the department is reshaping its approach to policing. With 70,000 or more people on campus on a typical weekday, the university is essentially a small city inside a much larger one, both with significant public-safety challenges that require a thoughtful response. Those include the threat of active attacks, a sizeable nearby population of people experiencing homelessness, and community members in mental-health crisis. The university is learning from incidents at other institutions—and the two homicides on campus in the last four years—as it works to keep the community safe.  

To start, UT Police Chief David Carter, who came to the university in 2013 after a 28-year career with the Austin Police Department, has restructured his force to focus on prevention. Police departments, he says, have historically been split into two divisions: patrol and investigations. Beginning this fall, UTPD—which has grown from 67 to 102 officers in the past four years—is organized into three divisions. District representatives like Tesauro are part of the new division of Community Engagement and Problem Solving. Its focus is on meeting students and staff, building trust, and learning about potential threats while there’s time to intervene: a door that should be locked but is often propped open, a creepy older guy who keeps showing up near a residence hall. Public Order includes officers who would respond to an active shooter or protest that turns violent. Finally, Investigations and Analysis solves cases and harnesses data to identify crime trends. The department’s activities are guided by a “threat matrix,” based on current public-safety issues at UT and around the nation. Imagine a graph with probability on one axis and risk level on the other. Property theft—the most common, low-risk crime—falls at one extreme. A terrorist attack—a highly unlikely event, but the one with the largest impact—is at the other.  

 At the same time, Community Engagement officers like Tesauro put a human face on the department in an era when students’ perceptions of law enforcement are influenced by highly publicized incidents of police misconduct around the country.  

 “We bear the burden of whatever negative interactions may have occurred somewhere else,” Carter says. “UT Austin certainly has students, faculty, and staff that are very socially aware, so as a police department, we have to be responsive to our community.”  

 The “worst-case” corner of the threat matrix, an active attack, is the domain of the Public Order division. UT was the site of the very first mass shooting on a college campus, when, on Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman opened fire from the Tower’s observation deck. That event spurred the formation of the UT Austin police department two years later. Today, every officer on UT’s force completes at least a two-day active shooter response class. Members of the Counter Assault Strike Team—UTPD’s equivalent of a SWAT team—have additional firearms training and learn lifesaving medical treatment for wounded victims in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. And all Public Order officers are certified bike officers trained in crowd management techniques to prevent demonstrations from turning violent.   

 UTPD also educates civilians about what to do in the event of an active attack. On an August afternoon, UT police officer Dustin Farahnak visits the alumni center to teach Texas Exes staff how to handle that worst-nightmare scenario. “Your job is to buy me five minutes to respond,” he explains. This means running away from the danger, hiding in a safe spot and denying the attacker access to it, and, as a last resort, fighting back. “If you’re hiding with a group of people, make a plan before the gunman gets there,” Farahnak urges. The tallest two people should point his gun up; the next two impair his eyesight; others attack his stomach, knees or groin with whatever is handy.   

 In the era of campus carry, officers convey another message: If you carry a concealed weapon, don’t have it in your hand when the police arrive. The Counter Assault Strike Team has additional training to process information quickly, so officers don’t shoot an innocent civilian armed with a gun or even with a makeshift weapon like a stapler.  

 Football gamedays, which more than double the campus population, present another challenge. Stadium security is a joint effort among UTPD, the office of Campus Safety, Athletics, and Parking and Transportation Services. Other law enforcement units, like the Austin Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, and Travis County Sheriff’s Office, help with directing traffic and limiting access to campus and the area around the stadium. The stadium is locked down the night before a game and thoroughly inspected by bomb detection dogs the next morning.  

 But the area outside the stadium is important, too. Bevo Blvd. and Smokey’s Midway now draw more than 30,000 pedestrians to the surrounding streets. After the vehicle attacks in Nice, France, and New York City, the stadium restricts deliveries on gameday and cordons off the area with concrete barricades to avoid the scenario of a truck plowing through the crowd. UTPD has also lifted a page from NYPD’s post-9/11 playbook. New York police periodically send a “Hercules team” of specially trained officers, wearing heavy body armor and carrying AR-15s, through potential targets like Times Square, airports, and subway stations. UT places its own Hercules team at strategic spots around the stadium to deter would-be attackers and reassure the public.  

  “We want to learn from events that happen to other people,” UTPD Assistant Chief and Chief of Staff Don Verett explains, “and try to be innovative and think ahead so that it doesn’t happen to us.”  

At 9 p.m. on Friday night, without the midday crowds and heat, campus is hushed. Students walk in twos and threes down the broad Speedway mall, moving from one pool of white lamplight to the next. Near the PCL, Ellsworth Kelly’s chapel-like Austin building is lit from within, even though visiting hours are long over. A circle of colored windows on the wall of one transept glows with a rainbow of jewel tones.  

 Inside Jester Hall, shouts and laughter from a raucous game of spikeball reverberate off the brown brick walls. The sound spills into the SURE Walk office, where a team of students employed by Parking and Transportation Services coordinates safe transit home for their peers. Drivers Kyle Maddry and Grace Nakajima check in with dispatcher Chyanne Blackwood before collecting sophomores Stephanie Tran and Johari Weaver, who have requested rides to their off-campus apartments. The van rattles over every pothole between Jester and Weaver’s residence in West Campus, but that doesn’t bother the students. “Because I’m walking by myself, this is just a better option to ensure that I get home safely,” Weaver explains.  

 Maddry started working for SURE Walk as a freshman because he needed a job. But his motivation shifted after fellow freshman Harrison Brown was fatally stabbed, and three other students wounded, by another student in the spring of that year. Maddry had walked out of Gregory Gym into the chaos immediately after the violence. “I started to really get serious about the mission statement of the job,” he says. “That drove it into my head that it’s important to have a campus that’s a safe spot for everyone.”  

 SURE Walk had existed as an all-volunteer, student-run program since the 1980s. But after April 2016, when freshman Haruka Weiser was murdered on campus as she returned to her residence hall after dark, the university changed its approach. The department of Parking and Transportation Services teamed up with Student Government and began offering rides in golf carts—paid for partly by Student Government and a parent group called SafeHorns—and vehicles, in addition to escorted walks across campus. Students can now take a SURE Walk (or ride) until 2 a.m. within an area roughly bounded by I-35, Lamar Boulevard, 51st Street, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, as long as either their origin or destination is on campus. The university has also introduced a partnership with the rideshare service Lyft, through which students can take free rides between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. to off-campus residences in West Campus, Riverside, Far West, and other areas where lots of students live. 

 Weiser’s murder was the first on campus since the Tower shootings. “We were really caught off guard,” says Jimmy Johnson, assistant vice president for Campus Safety. Since late 2017, UT has separated Campus Security, which includes UTPD, from Campus Safety, which addresses mainly environmental hazards like fire and laboratory safety and storm preparedness. Johnson’s division executed many of the recommendations in the security assessment UT President Fenves commissioned from the Department of Public Safety in the days following Weiser’s death. Since 2016, with help from the state, the university has put $13 million into better lighting, additional security cameras and emergency call boxes, a keycard system that restricts access to buildings, and regular landscaping work to trim vegetation from campus pathways. After emergency alerts went out close to a half hour after the 2017 stabbing, UTPD updated its protocols, created the position of director of campus safety communications, and arranged for texts to be posted simultaneously to social media.  

 In addition, since Brown’s death, 93 buildings have been equipped with trauma kits that include a tourniquet. The Longhorn Stop the Bleed program, housed in Dell Medical School, trains civilians—more than 3,200 so far—in hemorrhage-control skills bystanders can use to buy a trauma victim time to get to the hospital.  

 The man convicted for Weiser’s murder was a 17-year-old who had run away from a foster home and lingered around the UT campus, including spending at least one night in a storage room in Bellmont Hall. Accordingly, one recommendation from the DPS assessment was for UT to reduce the presence of transients on campus. That’s a challenge for an urban campus with several city bus stops at its center. And, Johnson emphasizes, “Homelessness isn’t a crime. But the criminal transient activity that can occur because of homelessness is a concern.”  

 Safety in West Campus, where thousands of students live, is a focal point of SafeHorns, a parent-led nonprofit that formed in 2016 after Weiser was killed. The group works with businesses on the Drag to host events like National Night Out, Queso With a Cop, and Pizza With Police, where students can meet the officers who patrol the area and download the Austin Police Department’s mobile app. Part of SafeHorns’ work, says the organization’s president, Joell McNew, is getting students to tell police—not just their parents or friends—about incidents of theft, harassment, indecent exposure, or assault. Away from home and living in an urban area for the first time, some students are unsure how to react to the transient population.  

 “Our students are dealing with, No. 1, ‘adulting’ for the first time, and trying to figure that out,” McNew says. “The orientation needs to improve in terms of educating the students on, ‘We’re going to be empathetic, and we give back, and we help those who are homeless’…And then, on the flip side, there are people with mental illness, people with addiction, and people that are aggressively panhandling students. We want students to be aware of that, so that, if they see someone who’s acting erratic, who is concerning, to always call 911.”  

 In June, the Austin City Council relaxed rules that prohibited people experiencing homelessness from sitting, lying down, or camping in public spaces. The change was meant to decriminalize actions that are unavoidable for people without shelter; citations for these offenses could make it even harder to rent future housing.  

 Because UTPD is a state agency and does not enforce city ordinances, the changes don’t apply to campus, where camping and panhandling remain illegal. But they do affect public health and safety in high-traffic areas like the Drag and West Campus, Carter wrote in August in an open letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Carter asked the council to reinstate the camping ban along the entire campus perimeter and the area west of campus.   

 “The City has a responsibility not only to seek appropriate housing and treatment for the homeless but to recognize that the interface of young students and some subsets of the homeless community have created potential dangers,” Carter wrote. “This view is not based on discriminatory practices but, rather, on real-world experiences of members of the UT community.”  

 The mayor responded with a statement that the chief’s input was appreciated and that the city and UT needed to work together more on citywide issues. At press time, the city council was still deliberating over the rules.  

 In Austin, people experiencing homelessness fall into three general categories, says Michael Lauderdale, a criminal justice professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work who has spent much of his career studying public safety. These groups include people who have lost housing because of changing financial circumstances, people recently released from prison, and people with severe mental illness. “Those are three very different populations,” Lauderdale says. “Police officers need to be very sophisticated in understanding, ‘Given the person I’ve stopped, what is their background, and what are the issues associated with that?’”  

 To that end, Lauderdale and Carter are partnering to launch a program to train future police officers from a social work perspective. Lauderdale is teaching the intro class this fall, and UTPD officers coordinate the “field” portion of ride-alongs and walk-alongs. The program currently offers a Certificate in Public Safety, but the duo plan to expand it to a four-year degree.  

 The UT police force is already trained to work with people struggling with mental illness. The majority of officers have completed a 40-hour training about the most common mental illnesses, as well as their treatment options. UT police know many of the people near campus who are experiencing both homelessness and mental illness, says detective David Chambers, and the mental-health training helps the officers understand how to interact with someone having an acute episode. “The ultimate goal, if someone is sick, is not taking them to jail because of their behavior,” Chambers says, “but actually getting them the help that they need.”  

 The officers also complete crisis intervention training to help people going through a mental-health crisis, whether that’s sparked by an underlying illness or a stressful incident. Those are skills officers use every single day, Chambers says. 

 The overwhelming majority of student mental-health calls are requesting help for people who are stressed, anxious, or depressed, and Director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center Chris Brownson cautions against conflating mental illness and violence. As coverage of events like mass shootings reveals some perpetrators struggled with mental illness, “I worry that people will draw the false conclusion that individuals who have mental-health issues are more prone to violence, or are people we ought to be scared of,” Brownson says. “In fact, people who have mental-health issues are much more likely to be the victims of violence than to be perpetrators of violence.”  

 When the university does field the occasional call about potential violence, it can intervene. After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when a student well known for his disturbing behavior killed 32 people, universities around the country began assessing how they could pay attention to warning signs and prevent future violence. Since 2007, the Behavior Concerns Advice Line (BCAL) has offered anyone in the UT community a confidential, 24/7 hotline for reporting distressing behavior.  

 About 1 percent of BCAL’s 1,200 calls last year were about potential violence to others, says Director of Student Emergency Services Kelly Soucy. The vast majority are from people concerned about eating disorders, a roommate’s excessive drinking, or a friend’s relationship. BCAL hotline operators either help the caller talk to the friend herself or connect the person with services from the Counseling and Mental Health Center. In emergency situations, or when the same student’s actions prompt multiple calls, UTPD gets involved.  

 “Every single year we have situations like that, but because someone decided to pick up the phone and call, we’re able to make sure our community stays safe,” Soucy says.  

 The university relies on students to pick up the phone—whether to ask for help, share their concerns about other students, or report a crime. That’s a point reiterated by Jimmy Johnson of Campus Safety, Joell McNew of SafeHorns, and officer John Tesauro, the district representative. Effective policing requires good data about crime trends, and Community Engagement and Problem Solving needs students to share their concerns before a crime happens.   

 UTPD and Campus Safety shared this message with every incoming student and parent at summer orientation this year. The idea is emphasized by the university’s Be Safe campaign, launched after Weiser’s death in 2016, which also reminds Longhorns to stay alert and use services like SURE Walk after dark.  

 An engaged, responsible student body helps UT make the most of its investments in campus safety. As the university learns from tragedy—the Tower shootings 50 years ago, and the recent deaths of Weiser and Brown—it works to prevent the next one.  

 “College life’s tough enough for students,” Johnson says. “They don’t need to be worrying about, ‘Am I going to be safe?’ Really bad things happen that have changed our thought process forever on this campus, but we can learn from those things. And those deaths won’t be in vain.”  

As the university moves forward, it must remain dynamic in the face of security conditions that continue to change. The “small city” that is UT’s campus sees a quarter of its population change every year as graduates move on and new students arrive, making safety-related education a perpetual task. This year, UTPD faces an additional challenge: Chief Carter, architect of the department’s new structure and cocreator of the social work certificate in Public Safety, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer unrelated to smoking. As his colleagues champion his recovery, they will continue to implement his new model of policing that places prevention first. They will work with the city council to balance student safety with the needs of homeless Austinites. And they will partner with colleagues across the university to keep UT prepared in a world that’s anything but predictable.   

Illustrations by Cristina Spano

 
 
 

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