Don’t Count on the Campus Police in a Crisis

The tragedy at Virginia Tech reminds me of what turned out to be a false alarm, but showed a serious weakness in how the UCB police handled a similar emergency a number of years ago.

One day in the early 90’s, a colleague and I left South Hall via the front door between 5 and 6 pm.

As we walked out onto the porch, we saw police tape around the area — and realized we were inside the tape. I called out to a nearby campus police officer and asked what was going on. He said there was a report of a shooter in the Campanile — which would have put us in the line of fire. But, he said, South Hall had been evacuated. I pointed out that it most certainly had not been evacuated. Yes, he said, it had been.

My colleague and I had both had just left the main office, and both our offices were on the first floor — I was Acting Dean at the time. The office was closed, but there were still lots of people around, including a class in room 107. That is, many people were vulnerable, and, if an officer had come in the main door, they would have easily found a faculty member and group of students just inside the front door to notify of an emergency.

At the time, the south end of the ground floor was the Library School Library. At that hour, the library was open but the only staff member was an undergrad. The officer said that they had yelled into the window to evacuate the building. Period. The student staff member, needless to say, may have evacuated that room, but not the rest of the building.

In later days I complained to the campus police that they had failed to evacuate the building: that yelling at the closest random person was not equivalent to evacuating an entire building. The campus police responded that it was our fault since we didn’t have an evacuation plan — useless, since some random student who would be unlikely to know of any formal plan. Even a simple apology would have been an improvement — or, better yet, a response saying that they would train officers better. But all we got was blame. We could have had dozens of people walk out the front door, inside the police lines, from a building they claimed to have evacuated, into the line of fire, and the official response was that that would have been our own fault.

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