An App Approach to Crime
College, for most young people, is the first time they are away from parents and on their own. How they handle experiences while there can be transformative. One new experience that no parent or school wants them to have, however, is an on-campus crime. But crimes do happen, and anything schools can do to improve responsiveness can minimize their impact. With that in mind, Susquehanna University is encouraging students to use a new application for smartphones that helps them quickly notify the school’s public safety department if they see or are the target of criminal activity.
Susquehanna is a small, four-year liberal arts college in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles from Harrisburg. Most of its approximately 2,200 students live within its bucolic 325-acre campus, though some live in adjacent Selinsgrove. Faculty and staff numbering about 600 bring the total population of the campus to about 3,000.
“Selinsgrove is a relatively safe environment. There are obviously crimes at all locations, but most of our issues on campus are thefts, and also underage drinking,” says Tom Rambo, assistant vice president for student life and director of public safety. “Our issues here are basically internal. We don’t have a lot of outside people coming in and committing crimes.” The school has had only a few serious incidents, such as sexual assaults or hate crimes, but “like any college campus, we are concerned about those things,” he says.
The university has a public safety department of eight full-time, nonsworn officers and around-the-clock dispatching abilities. The department works closely with the local and state police, who also perform campus patrols. There are more than 30 CCTV cameras that are monitored by dispatch. Most of these are outside, but there are inside cameras covering ATMs and in the university’s small student nightclub. There are also multiple emergency “blue light” phones throughout the campus.
Rambo says that last summer a colleague at Bucknell University told him about a new product the school was using called EmergenSee U, by EmergenSee U, Inc., of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. “We weren’t specifically looking for a solution to anything, but I was very interested in it and explored a little further,” he states. Rambo ultimately decided that the product might be tantamount to a CCTV camera and blue light phone on the person of every student, staff, and faculty member.
“I was able to get funding because it saved [the college the expense of] putting up other hardwired cameras throughout the campus or more hardwired blue light phones. For the cost of a couple cameras, you can have your whole population with a camera and a GPS in their pocket,” he says.
The system works by having users download an app to their iPhones, Androids, iPads, and other devices. Any time students walking around campus feel like they are being followed by someone acting suspiciously, for example, they can just tap on the EmergenSee U icon on the screen. The device automatically begins broadcasting live video of whatever the smartphone’s built-in camera is pointed at. It also transmits live audio and the GPS coordinates of the sender.
The data being sent by the device is received by the public safety department. The dispatcher has a dedicated monitor that begins playing the video and audio feed, as well as displaying the location of the transmission on a geomap. The dispatcher then activates a texting feature to ask the student if he or she needs help. There are buttons on the device’s screen for “yes,” “no,” and “never mind,” or the student can use the text feature to send a longer message. All of the data is recorded for law enforcement use.
Universities using the product have the ability to set up a “geofence” around the area they wish to receive signals from. In Susquehanna’s case, the borough’s police department let the school expand the system’s coverage over the whole of the Selinsgrove area. This way, “if a student is off campus, we still know where they are and at the same time, the dispatcher can provide the police [with] information about what the camera is showing and the messages that have been passed back and forth while the officer is en route,” Rambo, who formerly worked in law enforcement, explains. “The officer can also be looking out for a suspect…. A lot of times, when you’re going to a scene, you may pass the suspect but you didn’t have a description yet.”
The EmergenSee U system also encourages witnesses to get involved. “We really want students and faculty and staff to have a mechanism for good bystander behavior. Many times, when there is crime or disorder, someone sees it who may not want to get involved and insert themselves into a situation where they could be harmed,” Rambo states. “We see this particular tool as a great way to encourage our community to be better bystanders and report things sooner without them feeling threatened or having to put themselves in jeopardy.”
The university installed EmergenSee U as a pilot test program last fall; the trial period ended in the spring.
During the trial, among the users were the student resident advisors (RAs) of the dormitories. The RAs had frequently called public safety to report incidents, such as a group of underage drinkers. But if the drinkers heard the report, they would scamper away. “But by the time we got there, the condition would have changed, and we might not be able to do anything. That can be frustrating to a student worker, and we wanted to support them more,” Rambo says. Perhaps with the app, he explains, the RAs can more covertly alert dispatch.
Officers using the system on patrols also found it helpful. For example, they used the app to send dispatch pictures of hazardous conditions during bad weather so that facilities personnel or the fire department could be notified of the kind of assistance needed.
Rambo says that the technology has functioned as promised. “Like anything, you need to learn how it all works. Once you go through a couple sessions and hit all the right buttons, you get used to it.”
The only minor challenge is making sure you don’t accidentally activate it, he says. “We’ve had very few accidental hits,” he notes, and he even acknowledges having done so himself once. But it is rare and not a real problem.
The pilot test was considered a success and the EmergenSee U app was offered to the campus population as a whole this spring. Rambo says that thus far about 500 students, staff, and faculty have downloaded it.
Public safety is continuing to spread the news of the app’s availability through newsletters and fliers, and during new-hire training. Rambo also promotes it during meetings with various university departments and during a self-defense class he teaches. “I tell them to take out their phones right then and download it, if they want,” he says.
The app is free to the campus population, with the university covering costs. He also says that parents to whom he has spoken have told him that knowing the GPS will locate the student even if he or she cannot text or speak gives them increased peace of mind.
“I promote it to students as a personal safety [service],” he states. “I do tell students that...there are records every time it’s used, and that misuse would result in disciplinary action. I’m also promoting it as a bystander tool. A lot of students want to help, but they don’t know how to do it.”
In the future, Rambo says that use of the app may be expanded to include functionality during overseas and other long-distance student travel. All students at Susquehanna are required to have a cross-cultural experience, which usually consists of out-of-country trips. “Some of our staff, when they’ve gone overseas, they’ve activated it for us to make sure it works. We’re looking at how we are going to respond to it if students need assistance overseas. We’re working on those protocols now,” he explains.
Since the app went campuswide, Rambo says there has been no misuse of the service. “We’ve had a few activations for minor incidents and for hazardous conditions that needed attention. And it has helped RAs send in information on student conduct. They also used it during Hurricane Sandy to report weather-related conditions.”
Rambo recommends the product. “If other institutions feel it is the right fit for their area, I would encourage them to get it.”