Tech Innovations

Rutgers Takes Simple Approach to “Text a Tip”

Location: New Jersey By Becky Lewis Published March 2016

Say Jen, that package…wasn’t it sitting in the same place yesterday when we walked to class?

You’re right, Latisha…it’s kind of suspicious, isn’t it? Maybe we should let the police know? I left my phone in my room, use yours and send them a photo. They’ll check it out.

Don’t you need an app for that? I never downloaded it…I don’t even know what it’s called!

You don’t need an app…didn’t you see the online article the other day? Just send them a text. The photo will go straight to dispatch, and then right out to the cops on patrol. They’ll be here in a couple of minutes.

At the Rutgers University New Brunswick campus, sending a tip or a question to the University Police Department really is just that simple. Launched on February 5, the system received 200 messages in its first month of use, ranging from a photo of a suspicious package to requests for security escorts to questions about if bad weather had closed the campus, and Chief Kenneth Cop believes the text messaging system already has been a benefit to the university’s public safety.

Under the pilot program (tentatively planned for expansion to the Camden and Newark campuses later this year), students, staff and faculty can text a message directly to dispatch by sending “RUNB” and the body of the message to 69050. Messages go directly to the Communications Center and receive an immediate response from a trained dispatcher.

“It’s very easy to use. Basically, one of the screens turns a different color, indicating there’s a message in the queue, and they respond to it by initiating a normal text message conversation. If they determine it’s appropriate, they can broadcast the messages out to the officers who are on patrol,” Cop says. “From the students’ perspective, it’s instantaneous. They don’t have to load anything to their smartphones, it’s just a matter of sending a text message.”

Believed to be one of the first — if not the very first — systems of this type in the nation, Rutgers’ text-a-tip had its origins in a text-messaging application used only during football games. The university’s Student Government Association then approached the police department out of concern for campus safety, suggesting expansion to Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Cop says his department felt it would be more appropriate to go to a 24/7 system, and the idea took off from there.

“We have very good rapport with our SGA. We met with the president and talked about how to develop a safety application that would meet our needs. We looked at a couple of apps that were commercially available and decided that, hands down, what was important was the ability to communicate via text, so we decided to go with a simpler approach,” Cop says. The SGA provided the necessary funds to develop ┬áthe project.

“It’s a modern way to communicate and we want to be a part of that. The No. 1 thing is having an open line of communication with the community in terms of being able to send and receive messages. Better communication means more and better information,” Cop says.

Although the primary users of the system are students, the entire Rutgers community can use it to send in tips and photos, or ask questions. The system initially has drawn publicity from the university and local media, and in the future, will be pushed out to incoming students as part of orientation. Cop says it’s anybody’s guess how much use all that promotion will generate, but the department is prepared for a large volume of messages. And word has already spread to other universities, who have approached Rutgers to find out more about how the system works.

“They’re attracted by the simplicity and the desire to get into the modern age of communication. Texting is a modern way to communicate and other universities are seeing that, and they want to be a part of it,” he says.