Off-campus robbery leads to on-campus confusion

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Public Safety went through emergency alert training after communication about a robbery at Family Dollar on Alum Creek Drive last weekend caused some confusion and panic on campus the day before classes started.
On Sunday Aug. 18, campus police were notified that the Family Dollar on Alum Creek Drive, just a few miles from campus, was robbed by a suspect with a knife. According to Columbus Police’s web report, two victims were cut during the struggle and the suspect fled on foot northbound on Nelson Road.
“There was a possibly he could have been close to our Commons,” said Frank Fernandez, Chief of campus police.
In response to the situation, campus police sent out this CapAlert at 2:26 p.m.: “CapAlert: Report of an armed black male in a long sleeve black/grey shirt baseball hat. Use caution. Do not approach suspect. Call 614-236-6666 with [information.]”
Fernandez explained that the CapAlert text message system gives dispatchers a limited number of characters to share information. In this case, the location of the suspect was cut off in the text message version of the CapAlert, but showed up in longer forms of the message, such as the email alerts.
Eleven minutes after the initial message, a second CapAlert containing the location of the suspect was sent: “CapAlert: update Alum creek and Main is the area to avoid. Please use caution.”
In those eleven minutes between messages, Chief Fernandez explained that some rumors about the message started circulating.
Someone off campus called a student who was on campus, referencing the first CapAlert, and said there was a shooter on campus, “even though there was nothing about an active shooter in the first alert,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said the student on campus called their mom to tell her about the situation, so the mom called 911. The mom said that there was an active shooter on campus and gave the police the student’s residence hall.
Campus police were notified of the 911 call and weren’t sure if the situation was related to the robbery, Fernandez explained. Officers from campus and Bexley police, a team of about seven officers in full gear, searched Lohman hall.
“We know [the robbery suspect] is armed with a knife,” Fernandez said. “There’s no shooting with a knife, so the officer thinks, ‘maybe this is something else.’ As soon as they got there, they knew it was nothing, because people would be yelling, screaming, running…that was not happening, so we knew it had to be related to the alert.”
Someone else called to report that they thought the bookstore in the Student Union was being robbed, so team of police officers cleared out and searched the Student Union and the bookstore, which was closed because it was a Sunday.
After searching the buildings and receiving calls about the number of officers on campus, campus police send out another alert at 3:02 p.m.: “CapAlert: There is no armed person on campus and no active shooter. This was a false alarm.”
“It was not a good time to send it, because we still have [the robbery suspect] on the loose, but we needed to send that because we were getting to many calls about ‘Is this really happening?’ especially from people that were on campus,” Fernandez said.
Police also located the people making the false calls after searching the buildings.
“They could have been charged with inducing panic, and that’s something they don’t realize,” Fernandez said. “As part of the community, rather than spreading rumors, your responsibility is to verify the information.”
Fernandez explained that if there were an active shooter, CapAlert would be explicitly clear that the situation was happening on campus, and 40 to 60 officers would be on campus within minutes to help with the situation.
In case of another event like this, Fernandez said members of the community should always reach out to campus police to verify information before sharing it with others.
On Public Safety’s end, officers and dispatchers went through training Friday to make sure the most important information is relayed in the short amount of characters provided by the CapAlert system. According to Fernandez, the federal guideline says emergency messages should include the type of crime, a brief description of the suspect, the location, and a community response.
“We focused the training to send the message containing those four requirements,” Fernandez said. “We’re also going to try to include whether [the incident] is on campus or off campus…to avoid confusion.”
The final CapAlert was sent at 3:12 p.m. Sunday, confirming that the suspect from the Family Dollar robbery was apprehended by Columbus Police off campus.

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