University alters its crime alert protocol

Under the new policy, the U will use suspect descriptions only when considered helpful.

by Alida Tieberg

University of Minnesota administrators announced Wednesday that the school will be more selective about its use of suspect descriptions in crime alerts.

The school will now include suspect descriptions in its alerts only if there is information specific enough to help identify a person or group, according to an email sent to University faculty members, students and staff.

After more than a year of unease surrounding the use of racial descriptors for suspects in crime alerts, some say the change is a step in the right direction.

The modified alerts are part of an effort to make the University community feel more comfortable, according to an email from Vice President for University Services Pam Wheelock and President Eric Kaler.

The amended policy does not remove race from University crime alerts. Rather, the school will be more selective about the use of suspect descriptions overall.

Wheelock, along with University police Chief Greg Hestness, will now decide what to include in the alerts on a case-by-case basis.

The crime alert sent earlier this month about a man groping people in the Prospect Park area is example of a time when the descriptions would be useful, Wheelock said. The alert’s description included information about the suspect’s coat and hoodie.

Black Student Union President Michael Ampaabeng said including racial descriptions in crime alerts has made some black students feel targeted even though that may not be the intention.

He said the revised policy implies progress at the University.

Council of Graduate Students President Andrew McNally called the change “a great step forward.”

“It shows that when students speak out, they have the opportunity to make a change at the University,” he said.

The University area was hit with a string of violent crimes in fall 2013 — including a sexual assault and an attempted armed robbery — prompting safety discussions among administrators and the campus community.

“Particularly starting last fall, campus safety has been very much on the front burner for many parts of our institution,” Wheelock said.

Administrators reviewed suspect descriptions in 51 crimes that resulted in alerts since 2012, Wheelock said in a phone interview. Around 15 of those crimes included a vague suspect description, while more than two-thirds included specific information that could help the community, her email said.

Administrators also reviewed crime alert practices at other institutions, including Big Ten schools, Twin Cities colleges and historically black universities, Wheelock said.

One Big Ten school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, doesn’t have a formal policy for suspect descriptions in crime or emergency alerts, said Marc Lovicott, public information officer for the school’s police department.

Instead, the school looks at each case individually and sends out alerts with detailed suspect descriptions, he said, though in emergency situations the school may include more general descriptions.

Wheelock’s email also noted that robberies near campus have declined over the last year. She attributed the drop in robberies partially to the University’s increased patrols, enhanced lighting and security, and more nighttime transportation options for students.

Wheelock said in the email that administrators had been discussing campus safety for more than a year.

Wednesday’s announcement follows recent Whose Diversity?- and faculty-led protests for demands that include eliminating racial descriptions from crime alerts. The group released its list of diversity-rooted demands last spring.