Isla Vista Beat Reporter
In recent weeks, students at the University of California, Santa Barbara have seen an increase in the number of text and email alerts sent out by campus police regarding instances of reported crime and suspicious packages on university property and surrounding areas.
According to an alert sent out on Feb. 9, a non-student Isla Vista resident was kidnapped that afternoon at knifepoint by two males in a vehicle as she walked along the 6700 block of Abrego Road. A later press release from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office revealed the two suspects, who have not yet been apprehended, to be Hispanic and approximately in their 30s and 50s, respectively.
The suspects returned the victim, unharmed, to the area they had taken her from, after driving to her bank and forcing her to withdraw an undisclosed amount of cash. The victim managed to obtain the vehicle’s license plate number as it drove away and called authorities immediately to report the crime.
The vehicle, a 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe, was impounded two days later in Los Angeles County, which according to Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kelly Hoover seems to indicate that the suspects are no longer in the Isla Vista area.
“At this point, the suspect vehicle was located in Los Angeles County, and we are actively investigating this case and still attempting to arrest the suspects,” she said.
A number of the recent alerts have pertained to suspicious bags and packages, including a backpack at Harold Frank Hall on Feb. 4, a package at De La Guerra Dining Commons on Feb. 7, and another backpack near the Psychology East building on Feb. 11. Though in all instances the packages proved to be non-threatening, UC Police Department Sergeant Rob Romero said the circumstances surrounding each initially warranted investigation.
“We don’t do this for every single package that’s left unattended,” he said, “but let’s say a backpack is totally full or something, and it’s zipped up and we just can’t see what’s in there… it’s kind of hard for the officer to just go up there and kick it and say, ‘oh, there’s nothing wrong with it!’”
He used the backpack at Harold Frank Hall as an example that called for added caution. The bag was left propped against a caged area outside the building that contains tanks of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen gases, where it sat for approximately an hour and a half before UCPD received a call reporting it.
Proximity to these gases heightened concern about a potential explosive threat. Because the backpack was closed, making it difficult to identify what was inside, Romero said authorities deemed it best to evacuate Harold Frank and surrounding buildings as a safety precaution, as well as have the Santa Barbara County bomb team examine the bag.
“When you see something that’s closed up like a backpack… [and] you can’t figure out what’s in there, it’s better to be precautious and do the right steps and let experts take a look at it,” he said. “And I know it’s an inconvenience for our community because they’re doing work, or they’re trying to get home, or something like that, but it really is community safety that we want to make sure we’re looking out for first.”
Another noteworthy alert on Feb. 9 notified the community of alleged gunshots that were heard between Phelps and Canon Green Roads in Goleta. The alert warned that the shooter was reported to be carrying a rifle and had been seen walking in the direction of UCSB’s west campus. According to Hoover, the Sheriff’s Office found no evidence to suggest that any such shooter or threat to the public existed.
According to Romero, the emergency alert system used by police to notify the community of such events was implemented about four years ago in accordance with the federal Clery Act, which requires that a university or that university’s law enforcement agency issue timely warnings to the campus community about crimes or other incidents that pose an immediate threat to its safety. In general, he said that the department tries to keep its alerts short, so that the most important messages regarding what is happening and what community members should be doing to protect themselves are emphasized.
Whether or not an alert is issued to the public regarding an incident is dependent on two factors: the validity of the reported threat and the immediacy of that threat. Validity can be determined once the party reporting the threat is identified and an officer is able to examine the scene in person. Immediacy refers to whether or not there are people in close enough proximity to the threat to be in danger.
Third-year economics and accounting major Colton Bentz, who served as a community service officer from the fall of 2014 through the following summer, sees the alert system as a preventative resource that ensures students know to stay out of certain areas where there could be danger. Though some students have reported a heightened sense of unease brought on by certain alerts, he feels that the benefit of awareness outweighs this discomfort in importance.
“I think the majority of people appreciate the alerts and like having them,” he said in an email. “A small number of people have expressed an increase in anxiety [or] fear when certain alerts go out, but I do not think it would be wise to cease sending the alerts because of that. It is more important to relay factual information to people than to give assumptions or not send an alert at all.”
Third-year biology major Kimia Hashemian served as a CSO for the winter and spring 2014 quarters and echoed Bentz’s sentiments about the obligation of the alert system to promote safety through public awareness. She pointed to last spring’s tragic shooting as a notable instance in which it failed to serve this purpose.
“Though there are a lot of alerts happening this year,” she said in an email, “I do think it’s better to keep students informed than to have an event occur, like last May, and have no alerts come out until the incident is stopped.”
Despite this oversight, Romero hopes that overall, the system has been effective in instilling a broader sense of awareness in the community and allowing local residents to better protect themselves from harm.
“At least it gives them a little more power and freedom to say ‘okay, I know what’s going on, I know what I should be doing, and I’m going to keep myself safe,’” Romero said. “And I think it’s been very helpful. I think the community overwhelmingly approves of these types of alerts [and that] they’re happy with the information they’re getting.”