University of Wisconsin–Madison

An Update from the UW Police Chief: Clarifying Campus Notifications

This update was originally published on the UW–Madison Police Department’s blog, Chief’s Corner, and has been edited for audience.

Kristen Roman, chief of police at the UW–Madison.
“Working to ensure campus community safety is UWPD’s priority and is at the center of everything we do,” writes UW–Madison Chief of Police Kristen Roman. (Photo: Bryce Richter/UW–Madison)

One of the most visible yet most misunderstood campus safety measures that the UW–Madison Police Department (UWPD) facilitates is the issuance of timely warnings and emergency alerts. All UW­–Madison students, faculty, and staff can receive emergency notifications, and recently, we expanded access to parents. I hope to clarify why, when, and to whom we send these notifications.

Required under the federal Clery Act, timely warnings and emergency alerts (we call them Crime Warnings and WiscAlerts on our campus) are intended to alert our campus community members when specific crimes have occurred within a clearly defined geographical area (Crime Warning) and when active threats (WiscAlert) are occurring within this same geographical area.

Crime Warnings are sent campuswide via email and serve to notify the campus community of certain crimes that have occurred. They are considered as ongoing because the suspects have either not been identified or apprehended — therefore, a potential continued safety concern exists.

When a known and active threat (rather than a potential threat) is occurring, UWPD will issue a WiscAlert. WiscAlerts are sent via email, text, Facebook, and Twitter — they concisely communicate relevant information such that recipients can take immediate and necessary steps to avoid the active threat. Brevity is the hallmark of WiscAlerts given their emergent nature and narrowly intended purpose. Conversely, Crime Warnings — issued post incident — often provide greater detail (not always) given that the safety concerns are less imminent but nonetheless considered as ongoing for the reasons described above.

Recent expansions to our notifications to include incidents that happen just off campus, combined with a number of issuances around Freakfest (Halloween), appear to have compounded confusion that exists with respect to our notification processes as well as caused concern. Ironically, the very mechanisms we have in place to ensure safety by alerting and informing our community of potential and actual threats can cause alarm and perpetuate perceptions of a lack of safety instead.

Understandably, any cluster of alerts issued in a short period of time raises questions about safety on our campus and prompts consideration as to whether or not these alerts are an indication of a marked increase in crimes occurring on or near campus.

To offer context and assurance, below is a comparison of Crime Warnings and WiscAlerts issued during the fall semester (September 1–December 31) for the past four years:

2015 2016 2017 2018 (to date)
Crime Warning 5 3 1 3
WiscAlert 0 0 3 5*

(*Gas leak)

And below are the totals for all timely warnings issued between January 1 and October 31 for the past four years:

2015 2016 2017 2018
Total Timely Warnings
(Includes both Crime Warnings and WiscAlerts)
18 13 14 15

In an effort to keep our community more informed about emergency incidents in its vicinity, UWPD launched a pilot program in October called “Off-Campus Alerts.” These alerts are a supplement to our standard and required WiscAlerts. The key difference is that Off-Campus Alerts (OCAs) notify our community about significant threats in certain areas outside of the UW–Madison campus—in areas where a large number of our students live or frequently visit.

This expansion moves us beyond what is minimally required through the Clery Act and is responsive to recent feedback we’ve received that suggests our community has a desire to be more informed about significant crimes and emergencies happening near campus. By definition, expanding the geographical boundaries within which we will issue these alerts means that there will be an increase in the number of alerts received, which in turn, fosters a perception that crime has increased and safety has decreased. But as the above numbers indicate, there has been no marked increase.

This is not to minimize the concerns we all share whenever incidents that threaten the safety of our students and overall campus community occur, on or off campus. UWPD is committed to ensuring safety through collaborative approaches — and to this end we work closely with campus partners and stakeholders to include the Division of Student Life, University Health Services, University Housing, SafeWalk, Associated Students of Madison, and other student groups and shared governance bodies to address safety issues.

In addition, we share information and receive ongoing feedback through our Police Advisory Council, Community Forums, and other engagement initiatives, and have established representative groups to provide ongoing service assessment and promote continuous improvement. One such example is our Clery workgroup comprised of various campus units/departments, including University Health Services, University Communications, University Housing, Division of Student Life, Legal Affairs, Human Resources, Athletics, and more. This group periodically reviews and evaluates our crime warning processes and issuances and recommends specific adjustments and improvements as warranted. Lastly, UWPD regularly communicates with and partners with the City of Madison Police Department to address a range of safety issues that impact our shared campus and broader city community.

I understand that our notifications can and do create concern, and in many cases, fear. And while the criteria established by federal law dictate if, how, and when we are required to issue a Crime Warning or WiscAlert — thereby largely removing discretion in their issuance — there are ways we can make adjustments to improve the process, content, and follow-up communications.

Our Off-Campus Alert pilot is an example of how we can go above and beyond what is minimally required. Working to ensure campus community safety is UWPD’s priority and is at the center of everything we do. To this end, we will continue to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of our timely warning processes and make improvements where we can.

We value your partnership in supporting student safety and welcome your thoughts and feedback. Follow @UWMadisonPolice on Twitter for crime prevention tips, updates, and links to my blog posts.

For more information, see the following links:

— Kristen Roman, UW–Madison Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief of Police

Definitions

Crime Warning
Campuswide email notifications of certain crimes that have occurred within a clearly defined geographical area and are considered as ongoing. A potential continued safety concern exists because the suspects have either not been identified or apprehended.
WiscAlert
A notification sent via email, text, Facebook, and Twitter communicating a known and active threat that is occurring within a clearly defined geographical area. Concise and relevant information is shared so that recipients can take immediate and necessary steps to avoid the active threat.
Off-Campus Alerts
Starting in October 2018 as a pilot program to supplement WiscAlerts, these email notifications inform our community about significant threats in certain areas outside of the UW–Madison campus where a large number of our students live or frequently visit. These alerts are opt-in only. Students can choose to receive Off-Campus Alerts within their WiscAlert profile.