Officers are often some of the first responders to incidents of sexual assault. This job, as hard as it may be, is necessary for the safety of the people who depend on them most.
“We’re not here to take people to jail,” University Chief of Police Tim Potts said. “The overarching name of our department is public safety. Our officers want to do the right thing to make sure people are safe.”
Potts said sexual harassment is absolutely an issue on the Ole Miss campus. Potts knows many more cases go unreported than those that reach his department.
“If you have one report,” Potts said, “that’s one too many.”
Sexual harassment doesn’t discriminate. It can happen at any time, any place and to anyone. Potts said his department has faced many different kinds of survivors, from “juveniles that were visiting campus to students to alumni and visitors.”
But the reports most commonly come from students.
Despite prevention and educational efforts against sexual assault, it still happens. When it does, UPD is notified in multiple ways if they aren’t reached by the victim personally. The local hospital, the Student Health Center, the Violence Prevention Office or Title IX on campus work in conjunction with the department and notify them of cases that come to their offices.
Potts said the department’s first concern is to make sure the survivor is safe. He or she isn’t forced to do anything that makes him or her uncomfortable or press legal charges.
“When we get involved, we will still ask the person what they want done,” Potts said. “If they opt at that point and time that they don’t want the police department, that’s fine. We just want to make sure that we get them the resources that are available. We’ll give them the options.”
If something like a sexual assault happens on campus and the department feels there is still an immediate threat to students, they send out a REBALERT message. REBALERT are typically sent out minutes after the event.
“We try to get that out as quickly as possible,” Potts said. “That’s why there’s not a whole lot of information at that point in time, because we’re just trying to get something to the campus community.”
Follow-ups are done through emails, where the department can go into more detail and explain what happened. Potts said not all of the details can be included in the initial REBALERT.
“You don’t want to desensitize people to the alert,” Potts said. “That way when they hear that alert go off, they know that there’s something going on.”
In the case of sexual assaults, the REBALERTs are sent out when the attacker cannot immediately be identified and may still pose a threat to campus. When the victim can identify the attacker, the department can act upon that and begin investigation.
Jane Tutor, the detective captain at the university department, oversees investigations of serious misdemeanors and felonies and serves on the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team.
Tutor said when someone is sexually assaulted, the actions that follow are dependent on the person and what he or she feels comfortable doing. Some seek medical attention or go to the police, but some also confide in their friends.
“If a friend tells you they have been sexually assaulted, believe your friend, and ask them what you can do to provide support,” Tutor said.
Ole Miss boasts many resources like the Student Health Center, Title IX Office, Violence Prevention Office, and the University Counseling Center. Participating in the collection of a Sexual Assault Examination Kit is the victim’s choice but is a way of obtaining evidence.
An investigator will make contact with the victim to get details of what happened and continue the investigation from there, whether it be through more interviews with witnesses or suspects, obtaining a search warrant for the suspect’s residence, reviewing surveillance video or monitoring social media accounts.
Tutor said the department will update the survivor as the investigation progresses. If charges are pursued, UPD contacts the local district attorney’s office and presents the case at the next grand jury.
Another resource Tutor wants the community to be aware of is the website unsafe.olemiss.edu. The site has information for both victims of and those accused of sexual assault, stalking and relationship violence. It also lists more resources for both parties.
Off campus, Oxford Chief of Police Joey East said sexual assaults are a growing issue in the Oxford community.
“I think it’s happening more,” East said. “It’s an increasing issue, especially now that everything is so much more accessible: alcohol, drugs, everything like that.”
He said a lot of the victims of sexual assault, both men and women, are often inebriated when the attack happens.
East agrees with Potts that tactics like the buddy system and being aware of the surroundings can help keep people safer.
“I just say be careful with what you take, what you take from, who buys you drinks and who you ride with now,” East said.
If a sexual assault happens, East said the victim should go to the emergency room or medical provider as soon as possible.
“Those people are professionals that will give them assistance,” East said. “Also, when they go there and report the sexual assault, they’re going to notify us or the university. They’re going to notify everybody we need to help them– counselors, Title IX, all the resources.”
Once the department is notified of the assault, they go to the hospital to interview the victim and access the situation and with what the victim feels most comfortable. Oxford police officers have pre-made packets they present victims with to show them where to get help and counseling.
If a victim calls from the location of the assault, officers are dispatched to that location immediately, but East said more times than not, it isn’t reported at the location of the assault.
Similar to how UPD sends out REBALERT notifications, OPD uses their popular Twitter page to release information. The Oxford Police and the university remain in constant contact.
“Anything the university puts out, we’ll always retweet,” East said. “If we feel like it’s invaluable for them, we’ll send it to them, and they’ll in turn do that for us.”
East said it’s important for students to know the college environment is very different from the high school environment.
“You’re coming into a college environment. You do have people who are predators, unfortunately,” East said. “They look, and they’re watching you.”
The Square is filled with more than just the Ole Miss and Oxford community, including a lot of the visitors coming in from out of town. East said there are predators looking for victims.
“Always know your surroundings. Know where you are,” East said. “That’s the biggest things they’re looking for, and students need to be careful of that.”
East said anytime the community needs them, the officers are all ready to help.
– Lana Ferguson