Officer seeks to balance humor, safety in Campus Watch report

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UT Police Department Officer Michael Murphy got his first crack at writing the Campus Watch late last semester after an injury restricted him to light duty within the office. 

“It was the most nerve-wracking thing in the world because I was emailing 20,000 people,” Murphy said. “I analyzed every single word and punctuation mark. It was kind of terrifying.”

The Campus Watch presents selected daily crimes reported to or observed by UTPD in the form of emails to subscribers. While it now has nearly 20,000 subscribers, the Campus Watch originally began in the late 1990s as a straightforward police blotter. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the email turned humorous, when Officers William Pieper, Darrell Halstead and later, Robert Land began writing with a more informal tone. The officers often used humorous euphemisms to describe things such as illegal substances or bodily functions without naming them outright. 

“I like to know what’s going on in our area, and it’s funny,” linguistics sophomore Elizabeth Doyle said. “The way that Robert Land wrote it was funny because he was sarcastic and almost making fun of the crimes people commit.”

While several officers have contributed to the Campus Watch legacy, Pieper and Land served as its most recent writers until Murphy took over this January following several departmental promotions. 

“I would be a fool not to look to Pieper for inspiration,” Murphy said. “Particularly him, Land and Halstead, they had some humor that worked and I try to keep it going, but I also try to add my own flavor. I’m a little bit more sarcastic than my predecessors. I think that’s just who I am.”

The Campus Watch is published almost every weekday. At 8 a.m. each day, Murphy sifts through the previous day’s crime reports and selects the most interesting or important ones to include in his email, adding his own personal humor with each blurb he writes.

Because of its diverse audience, which includes students, faculty and a large number of UT parents, adding humor to crime reports can often be a challenge. While responses are usually positive, there is always a chance a subscriber could misunderstand or take offense to something meant to be humorous, Murphy said. 

“Sometimes people object to the language I use, like for a while I had been calling people we arrested ‘gentlemen,’ and some people didn’t like that,” Murphy said. “If I’m going to throw a joke in there, I have to think, ‘How is this going to be received by everyone?’” 

The Campus Watch doesn’t provide a full police report, but instead covers the “nuts and bolts” of each incident, aiming to inform the community of how crimes occur and how to prevent them.

“Day-to-day updates are good for knowing that certain things tend to happen more in certain areas or during certain times,” Stephanie Omaliko, human development family sciences junior, said. “It’s good information to have so you know when to be cautious about what you’re doing.” 

Murphy said he enjoys writing the Campus Watch because of the personal creativity he can apply to the job. 

“I have a really good time writing it, it’s fun,” Murphy said. “I never imagined in a police career that I would have the freedom to sit here and compose and send that out to an audience.”