All it takes are seconds.
Seconds for the shadowy figure to knock the cell phone from your shaky hand. Seconds to pull you into the darkened alleyway and push you against the rough wall. Seconds for you to become what police will later refer to as “the victim.”
And mere seconds are what Peter Cahill is saying will save your life.
With the help of Cahill’s creation — the newly launched LifeLine Response app for smartphones — men and women across the country can begin to feel empowered when traveling by themselves, he said.
Last spring, three sexual assaults linked by DNA evidence occurred within the Penn State community.
The case involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky also brought sexual assault to the forefront of the community and the country.
But now that students are back at the university many call home for the duration of their college career, it’s a discussion of safety that students can’t ignore, Cahill said.
And with the help of his app, safety is a feeling that can be restored to the college community.
September marks the start of National Campus Safety Awareness Month, which works to educate faculty, students, administrators and those living in close vicinity to college towns, on ways to better promote the safety and well-being of those affected by college crime.
Most importantly, it focuses on the education and awareness aspect of college crime — the key to preventing possible incidents while out and about in State College, said State College Police Lt. Chris Fishel — and what officers refer to as “situational awareness.”
It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, Fishel said. The crux of avoiding a possible crime comes with a lot of common sense techniques, but ones that students often forget in their everyday lives.
Playing off human instinct, Cahill’s app works to engage the five senses, as well as what Cahill called the “sixth sense” or an overall hyperawareness, through an active alarm and a real-time response system, Cahill said.
Users can choose to activate the thumb mode — where one must keep their finger held onto the screen of their smartphone — releasing a pulsation through the device, as well as a radiating light until the user feels safe again and disarms the code.
People can also activate the timer mode, best utilized for extended periods of time, like dates or meetings, when the user is unsure for their overall safety.
In both situations, if the alarm is set off and not disabled through the use of the personalized code, police are dispatched to the GPS location released by the phone and users will also receive a call from a live telephone operator.
The best part about this app?
“Police will know where you are, and they’re going to find you,” Cahill said.
Location, location, location
Location and time are two of the biggest factors in preventing incidents. Most crimes in State College occur within a one-by-10 block radius — better known as the downtown business district — between Beaver Avenue and College Avenue, and sandwiched between High Street and Atherton Street, Fishel said.
This can be mainly attributed to the location of bars and downtown eateries often frequented on the weekends by college students, he said. Prime crime hours fall between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. for these areas, Fishel said.
Moving onto campus doesn’t necessarily help safety concerns either, said Penn State Police Assistant Chief Bill Moerschbacher. He said police have a difficult time pinpointing areas of high crime on campus because they continually change.
“Just when we think we’re noticing a trend, it changes,” Moerschbacher said. “We’re not a place like New York City, where we can pick a couple areas that are consistently the worst. We’re working with a very transient population.”
State College, like most college towns, is unique in its crime rates. Summer — aside from Arts Fest — often provides a small amount of down time for local law enforcement agencies, but even the warmer months are starting to see a rise, Moerschbacher said, due to the push for more student activity on campus.
Many students that are here over the summer are also first-year college students and are still finding their niche of friends. Cahill’s app plays into this problem, utilizing up to seven people, also known as “lifelines,” by sending an email and text alert to the chosen group as soon as the user’s alarm is enabled.
“Girls, boys, they pick up their phone and dial their boyfriends and girlfriends,” he said, of college kids traveling alone. “Sometimes they fake it. All it does is give a false sense of security.”
Consider it safe
Despite crime reports, State College continues to be considered a safe college town, named the safest metropolitan in the country in 2009 by the Congressional Quarterly. The safety statistics at Penn State often aren’t a determining factor when choosing the college either, like some inner city schools.
But ignorance doesn’t protect against crime.
Kelly Aston, community relations and crime prevention specialist for State College Police, said oftentimes, all it takes is simply increasing awareness in a situation to prevent crime.
That might mean removing headphones on a late night walk home from the library or ending that call with a friend while taking groceries out to a dark parking lot. Again, it’s situational, she said.
All of these common experiences are the same moments predators can utilize in committing a crime, Aston said.
“Just look around,” she said. “Being ready is half the battle.”
Both State College Police and Penn State Police offer information and educational techniques to better inform students and residents on how to prevent crime. Penn State Police offers classes like the Rape Aggression Defense system or RAD to women on campus.
State College Police offer services like LION Walk and Lion Crew to educate student groups and organizations on campus in need of more information, including self-defense, alcohol poisoning and other common incidents.
On top of prevention services, both law enforcement agencies are also equipped to aid those who report assault in the most efficient ways possible, complete with counseling and reference sources.
The key resides in actually reporting an assault, Fishel said. Otherwise, the community has no real gauge on how often assaults are occurring and where police need to be patrolling.
“You have to wonder how much it happens,” he said. “We want people to report, but often the reported number isn’t equal to the amount it happens, which makes it hard to find an estimate.”
Another deep-rooted fear comes with the perceived pressure to prosecute those involved in the assault, Moerschbacher said, though that isn’t an expectation from police.
He also said the use of alcohol or drugs will not negatively impact someone who chooses to report an assault. While it plays a role in the investigation, the police focus resides solely with the safety and well-being of the person who reports it, he said.
Further the support
So what can students do to make themselves feel more comfortable after a late night on or off campus? The answer varies depending on who you talk to.
Some students are beginning to carry pepper spray in an attempt to feel safer, but the reviews are mixed on how effective the weapon of self-defense really is.
Fishel said having pepper spray — or the foam and gel it now comes in — is only effective if the person is trained on how to use it. Otherwise, it could potentially be used against the people attempting to defend themselves.
But for Aston, the real key comes in the confidence it could potentially provide.
Walking tall or appearing confident is huge in not becoming prey to a potential assailant, she said, and depending on pepper spray for protection won’t help either.
“I just don’t think you should depend solely on it,” Aston said. “Women like to be confident and independent, but self-defense is key. Knowing how to respond and how to be better prepared is what will ultimately help you.”
Talk to Cahill though, and he’ll say the best defense is prevention — and his app can provide the tools to do that.
For $10.99 per year, college students can have an operator at their fingertips and a feeling of security that can only come with knowing you’re not alone.
“We won’t stop crime from ever happening,” Cahill said. “But we sure as hell think we can stop the rape from happening. We want to empower people to be able to do things for themselves and take their bodies seriously.”