Generally, area school officials said, if the threat does not require students to take immediate action, no emergency alert goes out. Crime reports and safety reminders go out later, many in emails — which can take hours to go through — and on university websites.
At Morgan State University, residence hall managers put out the messages on their public address system, but police issue them separately for the student center. At Towson, a 2008 systemwide upgrade lets police blare messages on building public address systems remotely.
Williams, a former chief of detectives for the Baltimore police, said issuing alerts about incidents that are off campus — within a three-block radius of the University of Maryland — had been policy before he arrived nearly two years ago, but there have been improvements. Since the summer, campus police who walk around Lexington Market carry city police radios as part of a partnership with Baltimore police.
The University of Maryland, College Park is among the schools that regularly issue emergency alerts about incidents off campus when suspects may be in the vicinity, as many students live off campus in student housing and nothing stops outsiders from coming onto campus.
Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said the university issued an alert when a police chase was heading uncomfortably close to campus — one of three emergency alerts in about two years. It has not issued emergency alerts about crimes in the surrounding neighborhoods because perpetrators were gone, but would if students were in danger, he said.
When a man was shot about 1 a.m. last month while walking through the University of Baltimore's downtown campus from the Station North Arts District, campus police put out an email in the morning, noting that they had "just received" the information.
"In my mind, there's no such thing as a bad alert," said Vernon Herron, senior law and policy analyst at the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Maryland state trooper for 27 years. "It's easy to come back and say, 'All's clear.' If you have to think about sending an alert, you should send an alert."
At the same time, experts caution about false alarms. S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the nonprofit Security on Campus Inc., which advises schools and advocates legislation to keep students safe, said quick alerts are preferred but schools should also be careful.
"While communities respect and appreciate the information, you want to make sure that when they get the information, they know they need to take immediate action," Carter said. "If you start conditioning them that it might be a false alarm, that might not be a good thing."
Towson officials say that rather than turning students off, the gun scare attracted attention to the alert system.
"Immediately after we had the young man who walked across campus with the prop gun, we had an increase of 400 subscribers to the service that day," said Towson University spokeswoman Carol Dunsworth.
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