(Reuters) - A gun scare that jolted Louisiana State University’s Baton Rouge campus on Tuesday apparently stemmed from an off-duty policeman in plain clothes seen walking around with a pistol on his belt being mistaken for an armed intruder, a school spokesman said.
The incident was the latest in a spate of similar false alarms that have rippled across the United States following several recent deadly mass shootings and high-profile arrests of suspected would-be gunmen accused of contemplating attacks.
The episode illustrated challenges facing law enforcement and public safety officials as they seek to strike the right balance with their mantra of “see something, say something” while avoiding both undue panic and perceptions of crying wolf.
The LSU incident began with a mid-afternoon Twitter alert by the university warning that an “armed intruder” was reported inside a central-campus building, Coates Hall, prompting an evacuation of the three-story structure.
Police gave the all-clear about 2-1/2 hours later, following a room-by-room search of the building that houses lecture halls, classrooms and offices in the heart of LSU’s sprawling flagship campus on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Investigators also determined that the report of an “armed intruder” - a man seen walking around Coates Hall with a gun on his hip - had come just after an off-duty policeman dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a sidearm had been present at the building, university spokesman Ernie Ballard said.
Police were not “100% positive” the policeman sparked the intruder report, but “that’s the probable scenario,” Ballard told Reuters.
The officer, who belongs to an off-campus police force, was at Coates Hall for a class or academic program and apparently identified himself as the possible source of the gun scare, Ballard added.
Ballard said university officials are aware that the initial security alert, including the standard phrase urging anyone in harm’s way to “Run, Hide or Fight,” was alarming to students, “but we want people to realize this is serious.”
Fall semester classes for some 30,000 students are due to begin next Monday, but orientation sessions were already under way on Tuesday for transfer students.
The security scare in Louisiana’s state capital unfolded amid lingering tensions in the aftermath of three deadly mass shootings that killed 35 people during the past month in Northern California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
There was a similar false alarm on Aug. 7 at the office complex housing the headquarters of the USA Today newspaper in northern Virginia, outside Washington.
Police have reported thwarting planned shooting attacks in three other states since Friday, arresting suspects on the basis of tips from the public and social media posts.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait