How to Improve Situational Awareness on Campus

Your efforts, although time consuming, will help to ensure students, faculty and staff will take responsibility for their own safety.

The aftermath of the bombings in Boston resulted in calls for bystanders’ videos, along with other potential sources of evidence. After every active threat event, not to mention the everyday, garden-variety crimes reported to us, we consistently solicit all-source information to support our investigations.

Calls for evidence are a normal and significant part of our police responsibilities. However, these calls are a reaction to crime. What we need is a way to get out in front of crime; to deter it or react early enough to mitigate damages. The problem is that most people are perpetual prisoners of “condition white.” They are unaware of what’s happening around them. In short, they are not in the know. Instead, they are in the “no”: they deny anything bad can or will happen to them.

The reasons for their lack of situational awareness (SA) are many. Young people often consider themselves bullet-proof, while others are too naïve to believe that bad things can happen to good people. Some believe the mere presence of police ensures a safe campus. But most are simply oblivious. They walk throughout the campus with earphones on and/or fully engrossed in their electronic communications while their thumbs type messages at the speed of light. I’ve actually seen texters so engrossed in their electronic conversations that they’ve walked into a fountain.  Some members of the campus community will be attentive when walking to their vehicles at night or in a potentially dangerous situation, but their attentiveness is rarely sustained.

There are at least two ultimate effects of the lack of SA. First, people in condition white miss precursors to crime and are unable to provide meaningful intelligence that can help us deter criminal behavior. Second, their lack of awareness to what is happening around them puts them at personal risk. We know predators prefer the weak and vulnerable, and a person on campus who is unaware of someone lurking in the shadows or following him or her is inviting an attack.

Knowledge About Crime Encourages Community Buy-In

Improving situational awareness on campus requires solving two distinct problems. The first is getting students, faculty and staff to pay attention to what’s happening around them. The second is getting them to communicate this information to the police.

The solution to these problems is also two-fold. First, members of the campus community need to be convinced of what’s in it for them. If those we serve don’t believe bad things can happen to them, we must find ways to show them; and we must do this on various levels. To individual students, faculty and staff, we stress the importance of personal safety by providing information about crime on campus and in surrounding jurisdictions. The latter will require close liaison with local fellow officers, but this information should be accessible from crime analysts in neighboring jurisdictions and through your annual compilation of Clery statistics.

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A complicating factor exists for community colleges and institutions with large numbers of students and faculty who come to campus after work or for weekend programs. In these cases, we do not have a monolithic audience that is regularly on campus. We need to reach out to them, we need to reach out to the commuter students and adjunct faculty, as well as students who matriculate online and who visit the campus infrequently.

Encourage Officer Interaction With Students

The second solution concerns encouraging information flow from the campus community to the police and security departments, since the intelligence they gather does the campus no good if it is not provided it to us for analysis and dissemination. There are many reasons why members of the college community do not communicate with us. Some simply feel superior and view law enforcement’s culture, priorities and operations as inconsistent with their academic pursuits. To reach these individuals, we must emphasize that our creation and maintenance of a safe and secure campus environment is what enables them to pursue their educational goals. 

Related Article: How Bike Patrols Can Improve Campus Safety

Much of the problem, however, lies with us and continues because of our failure to build bridges to those we serve. Many officers and police administrators fail to engage the people we serve unless we are responding to a crime. This limited interaction fails to build a sense of community with civilians on campus. Further, it identifies the police as people they hope never to see. With such attitudes, not much information will be passed along to the police, except after the commission of a crime.

About the Author

Contact:

Lt. John Weinstein is the commander of Northern Virginia Community College Public Safety District 3.

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