University Police spent well over $200,000 on an underutilized help system

Callbox located in Unity Plaza. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal
Callbox located in Unity Plaza.  Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal
Callbox located in Unity Plaza.
Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

When university police are summoned by the trigger of an emergency call box alert, 88 percent of the time they don’t find out who called.

Since January, Georgia State University Police Department’s (GSUPD) emergency call box phone system has rung 502 times (as of Oct. 22). An open records request filed by The Signal last month revealed that, of those 502 calls, there were 440 occurrences of university police being “unable to locate address/caller, trouble.”

GSUPD Sgt. Sharon Ware of the department’s crime prevention unit said “a lot” of those calls were made by officers testing the hardware.

“A good chunk of that could be us [police] hitting the call boxes because we check ‘em every night to make sure they’re operable,” she said. (It’s unclear whether police tests account for the majority of the unaddressed calls as they’re all logged on the same ledger.)

GSUPD shelled out well over $200,000 to get about 90 Panther blue phone boxes (worth more than $3,000 each) installed around campus, according to receipts given to The Signal by police.

And when the call boxes malfunction due to an old or faulty radio and computer board, they can cost more than $2,700 to fix, nearly as much they would to replace.

Ware said even though the call box system is underutilized and possibly misused, one saved life would make all those dollar signs worth it.

“The [price] tag does appear like the cost is not fitting the results,” she said. “Yeah, we’re spending a lot of money on this, but if it can help one person, then the money was worthwhile.”

However, Ware couldn’t remember any instances of lives saved by the call boxes.

“There have been situations in which a bystander hit the call box because someone was fighting or something and we were able to respond,” she said.

Ware did not know if the police had ever conducted feasibility studies to determine if purchasing 91 call boxes worth $3,000 each were in the best interests of the department and the students it protects.

Can anybody see me?

Due to the lack of nearby camera surveillance, it’s can be impossible for responding officers to determine whether a deserted call box means a false alarm or the trouble has moved.

Ware said GSUPD decided against purchasing the pricier camera-equipped call boxes due to questions of their durability.

“They do have the new call boxes that do have the security cameras on them,” she said. “But when there’s bad weather, it messes up those cameras so we didn’t opt to spend that money for those cameras…because the weather is going to damage them over time.”

Ware assured The Signal that police response times should obsolete most worries of uncertainty in these potentially emergency situations.

“Our response time is so good that, nine time out of ten, we’re gonna catch ‘em because we’re spread out all throughout the downtown area so that when a call box goes off, the dispatcher is alerting the officer closest to that location,” she said.

But Georgia State journalism student Tyler Karstensen said he thinks GSUPD’s emergency telephone system “works well on paper, but not in practice.”

“It doesn’t work so much like ‘could the button help me?’” he said. “It’s more of like a deterrent. But [in an emergency] the person can’t really stand around there and wait.”

Karstensen said the scantily-used security measure could be improved upon if police would purchase and install surveillance cameras to oversee problem areas, such as the campus parking decks.

“If they’ve already spent all that money putting them up, it couldn’t hurt to put up some cameras within view,” he said, “…if they plan to actually utilize them.”

Karstensen said he’s only heard of two students who actually buzzed into the emergency service — And one time, he claims, he saw a student open one that didn’t ring. He thinks many students don’t care to know about the service afforded by the call boxes.

“I’ve heard people thought they were call boxes for the police escort service,” he said.

In fact, dialing into from a call box is one way students can request the university’s safety escort program. But considering the student body doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the emergency system, Karstensen said, it might not be worth the cost.

“I don’t know if it was actually worth spending too much money on because people aren’t really utilizing them. Students naturally think ‘call 911’ instead of hitting the button on the call box,” he said.

Ware said GSUPD needs to make a better effort of informing students how helpful emergency call box systems can be.

“We definitely don’t get a lot of the students, faculty and staff responding through the call boxes,  but it’s there for that extra protection,” she said.

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