It was 3:15 in the morning when the alert sounded and then suddenly stopped. The Drexel University Public Safety Communications Center (DUPSCC) received a panic alarm from someone using the Drexel Guardian smart phone app. This is not an unusual occurrence — that’s one of the main functions of the app — and normally the DUPSCC is able get details like the name, important medical information and the location of the caller through the app. But in this case, the caller had immediately disconnected after hitting the panic button. There was no way to know what the danger was, or even who had sent the alarm. The DUPSCC was flying blind.
Thinking quickly, Dispatch Supervisor LaVonne Speech and dispatchers Dennis Rivera and Zelma Boone used the GPS location of the phone that the alarm came from to guide police to an unknown residence. Upon arrival, Drexel University Police discovered the caller safely outside, stating he was victim of a home invasion. Thanks to the speedy problem-solving of the DUPSCC personnel, the police were able to be at the scene of a dangerous, in-progress crime despite having little more than a panic alarm from a smart phone app.
With stories like that, it’s no surprise that crime is down in the Drexel area. But Chief Eileen Behr isn’t patting herself on the back just yet. Behr was permanently appointed vice president of the Department of Public Safety this week, but she’s served as interim vice president since July 2015. Some would take a 25-percent drop in all crimes as evidence of a job well done. But Behr is reluctant to celebrate the statistics, despite how sunny they appear to be.
“These stats are a result of a team effort,” Behr said. “Lower crime is due, in part, to proactive patrols, community awareness and reporting.” Proactive patrols involve security officers engaging in “active looking,” keeping their eyes out for what could be crimes in progress. Community awareness has gotten a big push in the past few months, alerting people with flyers and other forms of outreach to habits that might leave them vulnerable to theft.
“And some parts are luck,” Behr said with self-deprecating chuckle.
Maurizo DeLisi, associate director of operations for public safety, agrees with Behr’s wary attitude. “These numbers are small enough that the percentages seem high. One or two incidents could change the percentage. We have to look at the numbers from that perspective. We could have one of a particular type of crime this year and then have two next year, which would be a 200-percent increase.”
While the Department of Public Safety is reluctant to take credit for the drop in crime, there is clear evidence that their initiatives have had an effect. The Drexel security officers have provided over 1,800 escorts last year, preventing assault or theft just by their presence. Educational flyers alerting people of ways their cars or homes might be insecure have also prevented some thefts before they could happen. The Drexel Guardian app has gotten widespread use in the past year. The app, in addition to the having the panic alarm, also includes a “virtual escort,” which alerts the DUPSCC if it takes you longer to get to a destination than planned, as well as a simple way to report and send photos of possible crimes in progress.
Community reporting is essential to how the Department of Public Safety does their job. 2015 saw around 55,000 calls to DUPSCC, up from 43,000 the previous year and 33,000 in 2013.
“If you think you should call us, call us,” Behr said. “Students often call mom and dad first, we tell them to tell their kids to hang up and call Drexel Police. We’re a service agency. The police motto is ‘To protect and to serve.’ We serve our community.”
Not that serving the community is always easy. “Sometimes parents call to say ‘Suzy hasn’t talked to me in two weeks,’ ” DeLisi said.
“And Suzy doesn’t want to talk to them” Behr said, laughing. “But we find her! That’s our job.”
“We’re a public safety agency with a fully-functioning police department,” DeLisi said. “These aren’t just crimes at Drexel. They are crimes coming down into the community over all.”
The key to reducing those crimes, according to Behr, is the DUPSCC, also referred to as simply “Dispatch.” Drexel is the only university in the world with both a police department and communications center that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The center is covered with monitors that cycle through the 543 cameras on campus.
“We can watch someone walk down from one end of campus to the other,” said Colin Quinn, communication accreditation and training manager for the Department of Public Safety. “It’s a very powerful tool.”
While the cameras record 24/7 for possible use by police detectives, far more important are the dispatchers who monitor them. The 15 full-time dispatchers are trained to work as a unit. When an emergency call comes in, the dispatcher who answers will first ask for a location. That location is then given to a second dispatcher, who will direct an officer to the scene while the first dispatcher is still on the phone gaining further details.
“The hardest part is dealing with different personalities. You have to keep your voice calm even if the person on the line is hysterical,” said dispatcher Stephanie Jones. That calm is important, because how the dispatchers communicate with the officers they direct can influence the situation.
Even though Behr and the rest of the Department of Public Safety won’t take credit for the lowered crime numbers, there is nonetheless a feeling of satisfaction apparent when they talk about it. Perhaps the lowered stats are not indicative of winning a war against crime. But they could be taken as a sign that the all the parts and people that make up the department are working together, on a variety of levels.
“I’m proud of these stats,” Behr said. “I’m leery, for reasons, but I’m proud.”