Content warning: gun violence
When gunshots rang out on Durant Avenue and Telegraph Avenue in October of last year and law enforcement occupied the area, a mass email was sent to members of the UC Berkeley community, instructing them to avoid the area until further notice. Four hours later, another email that marked the area “all clear” was sent. The last email, sent another five hours later, informed the campus community that four individuals were shot, one killed and no students were involved in the incident.
What goes into sending these emails — and what causes the delay between when a crime is reported to the police and when it is shared with the campus community?
These email alerts are called WarnMes. Anyone with a UC Berkeley email address is automatically enrolled to receive the notifications, which cover everything from ongoing crimes or severe weather alerts to areas where police are active. The alerts reflect campus emergency situations that involve an “immediate threat” to student or employee health and safety, the UC Berkeley WarnMe website reads.
The notification system falls under the requirements of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990, or the Clery Act. The act requires campus to gather and publish certain crime statistics, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. Following a shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, an amendment was added to the Clery Act, mandating that campuses establish an emergency notification system, Gilmore added.
There are three kinds of WarnMe notifications — emergency notifications, timely warnings and community advisories, according to UCPD sergeant Kevin Vincent.
Timely warnings typically include information such as a description of the incident as well as the time and location it occurred.
Locations of WarnMes can range from landmarks on campus to places in the direct proximity of campus to sites as far out as, in one case, Albany. According to Gilmore, “Clery geography” governs the boundaries under which crime statistics are reported.
“The ‘non-campus’ designation as indicated cited under Clery is NOT how we typically think of on- or off-campus designations,” Gilmore said in an email.
Instead, the Clery Act requires reporting of any Clery designated crimes that occur on the core campus, including on-campus housing, as well as any area within or immediately adjacent to campus buildings. Buildings apart from the main campus that are “owned or controlled by an institution that are used in direct support of, or in relation to, the institution’s educational purposes” and are not within close physical proximity to the main campus are also included under the act, Gilmore added.
Aggravated assault, robbery and burglary were the most common crimes reported in WarnMe emails from the fall 2021 semester through the spring 2023 semester, excluding summer and winter break.
For many students and parents alike, WarnMe notifications serve as a main source of information about emergencies related to campus.
When he committed to UC Berkeley, Stephan Baum-Harvey, a campus junior, said he opted in to receive the alerts because he wanted to be informed about incidents, noting that it was “reassuring at first” that such information was being provided.
Sagar Jethani, president of SafeBears — an organization of Cal parents and alumni dedicated to improving campus safety — echoed similar sentiments.
“I signed up to WarnMe after the shootings on Telegraph & Durant last fall,” Jethani said in an email. “I wanted to be better informed about crime around campus, especially since my kids had just started at Cal.”
After having signed up for WarnMe notifications, both Baum-Harvey and Jethani voiced concerns about the timing of the alerts.
Baum-Harvey alleged that WarnMe emails are oftentimes delayed, sometimes by hours, following an incident.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the alerts being sent so far after, it negates the whole point of the system,” Baum-Harvey said in an email. “They should be sent as soon as information is available, especially where students may be at risk.”
This visualization was created from 98 WarnMes sent from the fall 2021 to spring 2023 semesters, excluding summer months and winter break. Only emergency notifications and timely warnings are included with community advisories excluded. Data points for incidents where time and date reported were missing on UCPD and BPD public crime logs were also excluded.
The average time lag between when an incident is reported to the police department and when the UC Berkeley community is notified via a WarnMe email is about 2 hours and 35 minutes, based on data extracted from WarnMe emails and the UCPD crime log.
For Jethani, the timing between when an incident occurs and when a WarnMe email is sent determines how he responds to the notification. When he receives a WarnMe alert, Jethani says he first tries to determine whether or not the threat is ongoing.
“It’s not always easy to tell,” Jethani said, adding that some alerts “clearly state” whether or not students should continue avoiding an area, whereas others do not.
According to Gilmore, the Clery Act requires institutions to send “timely” warnings. While the act itself does not provide a definition for “timely,” the U.S. Department of Education states that a warning should be issued “as soon as pertinent information is available.”
In cases where a UCPD patrol sergeant does not deem a Clery crime a “serious or ongoing threat to the campus community,” WarnMe notifications are not sent, according to the UC Berkeley 2022 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report.
There are several other factors that affect whether a timely warning is issued, noted UCPD sergeant Kevin Vincent. Among these are the amount of time that has passed since the initial report, as well as whether the incident involved physical violence or a weapon, if there were multiple victims and if it was an isolated incident or pattern of behavior.
Baum-Harvey also expressed concern about the clarity and interpretability of WarnMe emails.
“While they are useful tools for the campus community, they are generally underutilized and are filled with mistakes,” Baum-Harvey alleged. “Warnings are sent out with no text and headlines that can be confusing.”
Jethani said he feels as though WarnMe notifications that solely provide a location and a message to avoid the area are “cryptic.”
“While I'm grateful that Cal is not waiting before telling students to avoid a potentially dangerous area, it would have been helpful to know what the incident actually was,” Jethani said. “That would help students know of areas they may want to avoid in the future.”
A timely warning, according to the UC Berkeley 2022 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, will at minimum include the time, location and type of crime. If deemed necessary, the message may also provide safety and prevention tips.
However, the report reads, caution will be taken to avoid sending “such a lengthy warning that cannot be quickly understood by recipients.”
The university provides a set of template messages that are adapted and specified to the particular incident, according to the report. If no template is appropriate, then the individual authorizing the alert will draft the “most succinct” message to convey pertinent information.
Staff at UCPD receive training from the department and the UC Berkeley Clery Act compliance office on WarnMe templates, according to Vincent.
UCPD is currently working on reviewing WarnMe templates and messages to improve accuracy.
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