Stanford Police Chief Laura Wilson talks about campus crime alerts

Laura Wilson, a Stanford alumna who has been the university's chief of police since 2002, earned her master's degree in homeland security at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security last September. In a recent interview, Wilson talked about how the Department of Public Safety advises the community about crime, and its efforts to teach everyone how to ensure safety on the Farm.

L.A. Cicero Laura Wilson

Police Chief Laura Wilson says community members can play a key role in ensuring safety on campus.

How does the department let the community know about crimes that have occurred on campus?

For incidents that pose an immediate threat to the community, such as an active shooter or a credible bomb threat, we utilize the AlertSU system to send an "immediate notification." The AlertSU system allows us to send out text messages, make automated phone calls, send emails or any combination of them. We may also utilize the outdoor siren warning system.

For incidents that do not appear to pose an immediate threat to the community but might represent an ongoing danger, such as a sexual assault reported to police days after the incident, we send out "timely warnings." A timely warning will typically come in the form of an email, but other modes of communication could be used as well, including phone calls, text messages, posting information on the university’s main webpage and, depending on the situation, even using KZSU.


How do you decide which types of incidents merit immediate notification or a timely warning?

It is a judgment call. For example, if a person reports having been the victim of a robbery immediately after the crime occurred, then we will likely send out an "immediate notification" using text messages, phone calls and emails.

If, on the other hand, the person waits to report the crime until the next day, we will likely send a "timely warning" message using email, because the threat is not immediate but might still pose an ongoing threat to the community. 

The purpose of sending an immediate notification as well as a timely warning is to enable individuals to take preventive action to help contribute to their safety. The speed with which that action needs to be taken is the factor which determines how quickly we push out messages and what modalities we use. We are aware that if we use the system too often, people may become immune to it. At the same time, Stanford is required to send out timely warnings under a federal law known as the Clery Act. [The act, which is formally known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990, was championed by the parents of Jeanne Clery, a student murdered at Lehigh University in 1986.]


Who sends immediate notifications and timely warnings?

My staff and a few selected individuals within the university are able to access the AlertSU system to send out the various types of messages.


What recent crimes at Stanford merited immediate notification?

We sent out an immediate notification to students in response to an assault that took place on Manzanita Field on Jan. 3. We felt the incident represented a "present danger" and wanted students to be informed and able to make good decisions that would keep them safe – such as walking in pairs at night. Police are still investigating the incident, in which an unidentified man put his hand over a female student's mouth as she was walking near Manzanita Field; she tried to bite his hand, he fled. We also sent out an immediate notification to students on Jan. 8 after a woman reported being awoken by three men who were in her dormitory room.

I also want to point out that the university may use the AlertSU system to notify the community about non-criminal matters.

For example, we have sent texts and emails to notify the community about extended power outages and mountain lion sightings. While a power outage might not seem like an emergency, it could have devastating effects on research and health care, so it is important that our community members know about these situations so they can take appropriate action.

We've also been working much more closely with Stanford Report to notify the community about various situations. The Stanford Report, for example, published a police sketch of the suspect in the Manzanita Field assault and a story about the mountain lion sighting. We also post information about campus crime on our website under "Crime Alerts."


What role can students, faculty and staff play in reducing crime on campus?

Community members have the potential to play a key role in ensuring safety on campus. Most crooks don't commit crimes in front of police officers, but they may commit them in front of someone else. If we can get more people on campus to be aware of their surroundings and to feel comfortable calling the police about suspicious activity, we would have far more eyes and ears out there.

Community members can also take an active role in their safety by taking a few simple steps to make themselves less vulnerable and more prepared to deal with emergencies. Developing a personal emergency plan, locking doors and windows, not leaving valuable property in plain view and using well-lit travel routes at night are all simple steps people can take to contribute to their own personal safety.


How do you reach out to students?

Each police officer on the force has been assigned to be a point of contact for various student residences. We call this the "liaison officer program." The liaison officer’s duty is to reach out to the student staff in the residences and become a friendly point of contact for questions and concerns that do not require immediate attention. The officers also endeavor to set up safety talks in the residences as well. Some officers share a meal or a cup of coffee with students in their assigned residences.

Officers are not limited to reaching out to the students in their assigned dormitories. Over the past couple of years, officers have developed their own form of outreach, which they have termed "flipping" calls. If a student reports a burglary in a dorm, for instance, one of our officers will take the report, then contact the resident assistant or the resident fellow – or talk to the student – and offer to give a crime prevention talk in the residence hall. The whole idea is to "flip" a crime into an opportunity to get out into the community, build relationships, develop trust, educate people and encourage students to play an active role in their personal safety and the safety of the community.


Have those crime prevention talks led to arrests?

Yes. Just recently, we conducted a crime prevention talk in an academic building and a woman who attended the meeting went back to her office and saw a man who didn't appear to have any legitimate business in the building. She called the police; we went out there but couldn't find him. A couple hours later, another building manager in another building across campus reported finding two walkie-talkies, a police scanner and some property stashed in a corner. We investigated and determined the property had been stolen. It turned out that the person who stole the property was the same person that the first woman had reported as being suspicious. We eventually arrested the man. If it were not for those two astute employees, we wouldn't have caught him. They were not only paying attention to their surroundings, they weren't rationalizing what they saw. Instead, they called us so we could investigate.


Are there ruses members of the Stanford community should be aware of?

In one common ruse, someone will try a door to see if someone is inside, and then poke his or her head around the door and say, "Is John here?" And the Stanford person might say, "There is no John here," or "John works down the hall," and send them on their way. We would like Stanford people to take that one step further, asking the person, "Which John are you looking for and can I help you find him?" Doing so can help you determine whether or not that person really has legitimate business on campus. If their behavior seems suspicious, call us; let us figure out if they have legitimate business on campus.