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Unattended Backpacks Causing a Stir on UC Santa Barbara Campus

Police say they're just erring on the side of caution, with two incidents this month highlighting the need to keep track of belongings

Police and other emergency personnel were called to UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 4 after a suspicious backpack was discovered. Several nearby buildings were evacuated. Authorities say they err on the side of caution in such situations.
Police and other emergency personnel were called to UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 4 after a suspicious backpack was discovered. Several nearby buildings were evacuated. Authorities say they err on the side of caution in such situations.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk file photo)

"Suspicious packages" have been in the news lately at UC Santa Barbara, leading some to wonder if campus authorities are responding to some new threat.

UCSB police say no — they are just erring on the side of caution in the interest of public safety.

It all started Feb. 4 with an unassuming, unattended backpack.

A campus employee with an office window facing a bunch of oxygen and nitrogen tanks near Harold Frank Hall noticed a black backpack leaning against a fence when he got to work.

When the backpack remained two hours later, he called UC Police to take a look at what authorities deemed a “suspicious package” in a UCSB alert sent out a short time later, asking people to stay away from the area.

Seeing that the backpack was full, and based on where they found it, responding officers and Santa Barbara County Fire Department personnel decided to call in the county sheriff’s bomb squad.

What they found was a bag full of video-game console equipment, likely left behind by someone loading up a vehicle, according to UCSB Police Sgt. Rob Romero.

Barely three days later, another campus alert went out, and a dorm was evacuated just after 12:30 a.m. when a "suspicious package" was reported near the psychology building and De La Guerra Commons dining hall.

It was another backpack, this time belonging to a student who was there to claim it.

So, what exactly makes a lonely book bag suspicious?

“A lot if it has to do with common sense,” Romero said. “It could’ve been something harmful. Not only does the officer put themselves in danger, they’re putting other people in danger. They made the right call.”

A combination of where a package is found, what it’s next to, and whether it’s leaking or has wires sticking out of it guides UC Police, Romero said, noting that the campus hasn’t received any threats that would heighten its alarm or response.

Obviously, if a backpack is found unattended in the library, police wouldn’t be called, since that happens all the time, he said.

“We don’t want to cry wolf every time we see a package,” Romero said. “Then again, we want to make sure we’re doing everything safe.

"We’re always trying to learn on these notifications, too, how to get the most information with the least amount of writing or causing a panic. Those are things we’re always trying to tweak.”

Once law enforcement agencies call for evacuations and secure an area, officers conduct an initial investigation, trying to locate the owner of the package, luggage or parcel and determine if a threat is involved, said Kelly Hoover, a sheriff’s department spokeswoman.

If so, the sheriff’s bomb squad calls officers on scene for details, deciding whether to respond.

“The bomb squad will normally respond and err on the side of safety,” Hoover said. “The bomb squad would rather respond and find nothing than not respond and have a dangerous incident occur.”

She said there’s no charge to the initial agency to request the bomb squad, since it’s a Sheriff’s Department responsibility.

The most recent incidents at UCSB could serve as a reminder to people to make sure they know where their belongings are, Romero said.

“We appreciate the community letting us know about these things,” he said. “These things ebb and flow. Yeah, we’ve had a few lately, but then we may not have one for a few months. We’re not seeing an increase or certain time of year.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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