MIT Responds to the Virginia Tech Tragedy
An Interview with MIT Chief of Police John DiFava
FNL: When did you first hear about the events at Virginia Tech?
JD: It turns out I was with my family on vacation in Florida at SeaWorld when my cell phone rang. It was the News Office calling and they gave me a quick overview but not a lot of information had come out yet. So I hung up and then called the Police Chief at BU who was a former colleague of mine in the State Police. The facts were still unfolding, but he told me as much as he knew and then I called back the News Office and filled them in. I also told them that even though I was on vacation I was willing to do whatever was needed.
FNL: Were you able to effectively monitor the situation from Florida?
JD: Yes I was. I kept in close touch with my staff and I also was in frequent contact with Bill Van Schalkwyk, who is in charge of Environmental Health and Safety. There were several meetings held that Bill attended along with my Deputy Chief, John Driscoll, who went in my stead. I offered to return to MIT, but was told it wouldn’t be necessary. It seems the meetings were pretty low key. There wasn’t a lot of panic on the campus and the issues were basically Are we prepared? What have we done? And people were satisfied with the answers.
FNL: Did the police force do anything different immediately upon hearing the news? Was there greater vigilance or other actions taken? Or was it more of well nothing has happened here, let’s see how prepared we are?
JD: To be honest, it was the latter. It was let’s see how prepared we are.
FNL: And were we prepared?
JD: Yes we were. And to be as candid as possible, one reason I believe I was hired was for the expertise I brought. So one thing I did early on was to make sure that we were ready for any type of event that could happen on campus.
FNL: How did you go about doing that?
JD: I started by really tearing this place apart from our first response capabilities. I identified officers that I felt had the mindset and ability to be able to respond to an active shooter type of thing. Because if something goes down, we’re going to be the immediate responders. And our response is really quite impressive here. We have never arrived at a scene or a call in more than three minutes. And that’s really good in this business.
We went through the whole active shoot-up scenario. We set up a group that would respond in case of a situation like that or something similar. We did an awful lot of training with the State Police, with the Cambridge Police – not to create an overly aggressive organization, but to be prepared
We also worked very closely with the Cambridge Fire Department and with departments on campus to make sure that there was that flow of information. We worked with Medical, Environmental Health and Safety, the Dean’s Office, Counseling – because we can’t work in a vacuum here. We have to share information. And although we never expect an incident to happen, we do prepare for it, and I guess it’s the old mantra: prepare for the worst, expect the best. And that’s what I’ve always done. So when Virginia Tech happened, we sat back and we looked at our plans and our preparation. We were about as prepared as any organization anywhere, and I took comfort from that.
FNL: What would you say was the most important aspect of all the training?
JD: I actually believe it’s the sharing of information. The other thing, and it’s so important for me to say this, is we the police are a cog in the machinery at MIT, and the one thing that impresses me no end about this place is that people talk to each other here. I mean there was incredible communication among Medical, the Dean’s Office, the Counseling Deans, us. People talk. People know what’s going on. We don’t violate any privacy issues. But we know what’s going on to the best of our ability, and that’s huge.
And partially as a result, only 3% of our work is actually criminal. That’s unheard of anywhere. And it’s really because of the incredibly high quality of the faculty, students, and staff. So it doesn’t call for an aggressive department. It calls for a vigilant department. It calls for a proactive department. It calls for a very community-oriented department.
FNL: So you really didn’t need to change anything in response to Virginia Tech?
JD: Very honestly, should we have a similar situation to Virginia Tech where we respond, it’s already too late. So you’ve got to get ahead of that. That’s my philosophy; let’s get ahead of it. If something happens here, you stand back, you get together and you say oh my God, we’ve got to change this, change that. We haven’t had to change anything. Have we refined? Yes, we have. Have we looked into a little bit more detail? Certainly. Have we analyzed and checked to make sure? Yes, we have as well. But are we at the level that, should something happen today, we are as prepared as we could be? Yes, I believe we are.
FNL: Perhaps the biggest criticism of the authorities at Virginia Tech and the greatest concern on our campus was the question of communication. How do you inform people rapidly as to what has occurred and what they should do?
JD: I agree – that’s a huge issue. How do we notify? And once again, this place is great. We’re ahead of the curve. The Institute has purchased a new piece of software which enables us to get the word out through a multitude of cell phones, e-mail, and regular landline telephones.
FNL: Are we able to text message everyone with a cell phone simultaneously?
JD: Yes we are. Everybody that’s in our database can be reached at the same time.
FNL: That is if we actually have their cell phone number.
JD: You know, BU has similar software, but the students aren’t providing their cell phone numbers. But we are getting students’ phone numbers; it’s part of the registration process.
FNL: Is there anything you’d like to add?
JD: Just that MIT is a fantastic place and that it’s wonderful to work here. And because of the positive, sharing attitude of all the people and their resources, I believe that MIT is as safe a campus as it is possible for it to be.