Public should have been notified sooner after shootings were over, State College police chief says
A gunman shot four people in State College on Thursday night, police say, but some members of the local and Penn State communities expressed frustration about the way they found out about the shootings.
Penn State did not send a universitywide alert, and the first update from State College police came around 1 a.m. Friday during a press conference.
“If there’s one thing that we, or myself as police chief, could have done better here, was to release information sooner that the threat had been eliminated,” State College police chief John Gardner said Friday afternoon.
According to police, 21-year-old Bellefonte resident Jordan Witmer shot a man and his son at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar & Grill at 1450 S. Atherton St. before fleeing the scene. Dean Beachy, 62, died at the scene while 19-year-old Steven Beachy died Friday at a hospital. Witmer crashed his vehicle on Waupelani Drive and broke into a residence on Tussey Lane, where he shot and killed the homeowner, 82-year-old George McCormick, before turning the gun on himself, police said.
P.J. Harrigan’s is 2 miles from Old Main on Penn State’s campus, and Tussey Lane is in the vicinity of various student apartment complexes.
“I heard of the news from GroupMe, not Penn State,” Ammanda Maldonado, a junior at Penn State, said Friday. “My family contacted me this morning worried about me and my safety that clearly Penn State disregarded.”
Maldonado was also concerned for her multiple friends who lived and worked in close proximity to the shooting, who had also not been informed of what was going on.
On Friday afternoon, Penn State released a statement about the decision to not issue an alert.
“University police, working with State College police, were monitoring the rapidly unfolding off-campus incident. After careful consideration based on the circumstances known to law enforcement at the time, location of the incidents, and the lack of an imminent threat to Penn State students or the campus, it was decided that an alert would not be sent,” the release stated.
The decision to send an action alert is made on a case-by-case basis for each situation, the release continued, and is based on information available to Penn State police at the time of the event.
“We always review our responses to these incidents and will adjust our processes as needed.”
Heather Petty, a junior at Penn State, doesn’t think the university made the right call.
“Personally it was scary for me because I live in an apartment with no security in the lobby, so anyone can just walk in,” she said. “I think whether there’s something happening in State College or on campus, there’s students that live all over the area and it’s the university’s duty to keep us informed.”
Updates are typically provided via the PSUALERT system, a mass messaging system that can be sent to all students and faculty in case of an emergency or changes to class schedules. It was used Thursday afternoon to alert students and faculty of an early dismissal due to weather conditions, and was used in December to alert students about police activity in Tudek Park, where a Penn State student shot himself.
In a tweet Friday morning, Penn State cited the Clery Act as the reason for a lack of alert.
Clery-reportable locations, and thereby what is “alert-worthy,” on college campuses include three geographical definitions: “on campus, on public property within or immediately adjacent to the campus, and in or on non-campus buildings or property that your college owns or controls,” according to Campus Safety Magazine.
“It was a State College incident, it was not a university incident,” Gardner said.
Stephanie Madden, a public relations professor at Penn State, said that the Clery Act is a slippery slope in a lot of ways, and hopes that the university going forward will have a better understanding of when to alert and when not to alert.
“You don’t want a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation, where people will just start ignoring it if it’s a false alarm,” Madden said.