Safety first: How a new breed of apps is improving campus security
Smart phone technology is changing the face of law enforcement. Goodbye, blue light call boxes. Hello, Safety 2.0. As wired campuses get more tech-savvy, so do their security systems. Armed with the ability to reach students and faculty anywhere and at virtually any time, a bevy of new mobile safety apps is revolutionizing how campus police respond to and deal with emergency situations. Designed to both alert the student body to dangers ranging from natural disasters to campus intruders and to provide first responders with better information about emergency situations, these apps range from one-way text messaging systems to fully interactive programs that track personal profile information, contact points and location. Here's how they're protecting students.
On-campus crime dropped by 32 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to a joint study released in June by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. Most on-campus crime was nonviolent — 64 percent of criminal incidents reported in 2011 were burglaries while 11 percent were motor vehicle thefts — but more than one in 10 were forcible sex offenses, an area where crime reports rose by 52 percent between 2001 and 2011.
Prior to the mobile age, campus police oftentimes relied on phone tips or calls from blue light call boxes, but these strategies are limited, especially on large campuses and at schools with multiple campus locations.
Going beyond the blue light
"For us, we're a large, spread-out campus so even if we invest in 30 blue light polls, that's not enough," says Tom Saccenti, chief of police at Furman University, a Greenville, S.C.,-based institution that spans 900 acres. "We looked for a solution that would allow us to really put, we call it, the blue light poll in your pocket."
In January, Furman began using LiveSafe, a mobile safety app co-launched by Kristina Anderson, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting. The app allows students to text tips — including photos and videos — to campus police, view crime reports in their area and let friends GPS track them when they're walking in a sketchy area. Saccenti says that currently about 40 percent of Furman's student body has downloaded the app, a figure which he hopes to bump up to 80 percent by this coming fall. LiveSafe comes with several advantages over call boxes, he says, GPS tracking being a major one.
"If you run from someone who's going to attack you and you run to the blue light pole … by hitting that button, do you think the attacker is just going to stop and turn around and walk away?" he says, adding that victims could be a significant distance from the call box by the time authorities arrive. "I think the blue light polls give a false sense of security."
There's a safety app for that
Safety apps also have the potential to provide law enforcement officials with a clearer picture of the situation — sometimes literally, says Daniel Dusseau, chief of police at Northern Virginia Community College, a school that began using LiveSafe in early April.
"Without the app, if student sees something occurring, suspicious activity … They pick up their phone and they call the police and they describe to the dispatcher, 'I see somebody and here's the description of them.' The dispatcher takes that information and processes it through their mind the best they can through their training and they relay that to the police office who's responding the call," Dusseau says. "... With this app, the ability to report the tips directly from the person who's seeing it. They can a video tape or still shot, it goes direct to the dispatchers so we have an absolute accurate representation of what's occurring."
In addition to transmitting better information about crimes, safety apps like LiveSafe and Rave Guardian also allow students to upload a profile of themselves, thus providing campus police with additional information on the victim should the student report a crime.
Sharing alerts in real time
Reporting crime is only one major advantage of safety apps, says Todd Miller, vice-president of public safety services for Rave Mobile Safety, a company whose Rave Guardian app offers tip texting, immediate connection to campus safety and a check-in timer that allows personal contacts to check the user's status for a certain period of time. The ability to alert the rest of campus, students and faculty who aren't involved in a crime or emergency situation, is the other.
"When there's a need to tell students to take shelter because there's a tornado coming or if there is an shooter on or near campus, there is a very critical time period that requires that rapid notification go out," Miller says, adding that the Jeanne Clery Act legally requires campuses to inform students and staff about ongoing crimes or immediate threats in a timely manner.
Even if there is never a need to send out a campus-wide emergency alert, having a safety app helps open communication lines between campus police and everyone else, Daniel Dusseau says.
"If we've got a quality of life thing like people being too loud or disorderly, it may not be the biggest crime that ever occurred, but if we address that effectively … then they have a tendency to trust us for the next incident," he explains.
"Summary of the Jeanne Clery Act," Clery Center for Security on Campus,
Daniel Dusseau, Chief of Police at Northern Virginia Community College, Interviewed by the author, May 1, 2014
About LiveSafe, LiveSafe.com,
Todd Miller, Vice President of Public Safety Services for Rave Mobile Safety, Interviewed by the author, April 30, 2014
"Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013," National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2014, page 96,
Rave Guardian Campus Safety App, Rave Mobile Safety,
Tom Saccenti, Director of University Police at Furman University, Interviewed by the author, April 29, 2014
"2014 National Crime Victims' Rights Week Resource Guide," Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, January 2014, page 36