New policy for crime alerts in question

Alida Tieberg

Two months and three crime alerts after University of Minnesota campus administrators announced they would be more selective in describing suspects in crime alerts, questions are beginning to arise regarding exactly what change the new policy will make.
 
Although some on campus have applauded the change as a step in the right direction, others feel administrators should have a more concrete standard to follow.
 
Vice President for University Services Pamela Wheelock announced in February that officials would include suspect descriptions in the alerts on a case-by-case basis. According to her announcement, suspect descriptions are now only included if there is information that can help identify a specific individual or group.
 
Previously, all available suspect descriptions were included in alerts. But in her February Public Safety Update, Wheelock said about 30 percent of the descriptions provided in the about 50 alerts administrators examined were too general.
 
University officials made the change following campus-wide concerns that the emails were doing more harm than good.
 
“If we only have height and race, even if it’s a minority, it’s still describing hundreds of people,” said psychology graduate student Lauren Mitchell.
 
Crime alerts are sent to inform students, faculty and staff of a threat or risk, and though they ask the public to help identify suspects, it’s not expected that issuing a crime alert will lead to an arrest, according to the University Police Department’s website.
 
The most recent suspect descriptions portray white males, one 5 feet, 10 inches and the other between that height and 6 feet, 1 inch, and both with a medium build.
 
Both alerts included a description of what the suspect was wearing at the time of the incident.
 
In contrast, most major news organizations include suspect descriptions only when those identifiers are detailed enough for someone to be able to distinguish that person from others. These policies are in place to avoid confusion that could lead to a wrongfully accused person who shared general traits with the suspect.
 
Since the change took effect, University police Chief Greg Hestness has sent three crime alerts to the community.
 
Both Wheelock and Hestness declined to comment for this story. 
 
Mitchell, the graduate student, does research that includes understanding crime alerts and their effect on the community.
 
“The useful information there is where are things happening and what time of day and what can you do to avoid this stuff,” Mitchell said. “I do think they’re really useful on those terms.”
 
But Mitchell said she thinks including race and general suspect descriptions create anxiety and stress for those who match the description in the alerts.
 
Administrators reviewed practices at other Big Ten schools, Twin Cities colleges and historically black universities before they implemented the new policy, according to February’s Public Safety Update.
 
For example, Macalester College in St. Paul includes skin tone descriptors rather than the broader racial terms, like white and black, in its crime alerts. The change stemmed from calls from a group of faculty and students asking for the change, said Dean of Students Jim Hoppe.
 
He said the policy now aims to make more accurate reports after a traumatic event. 
 
“Oftentimes, folks make a guess about someone’s race, and that wouldn’t necessarily be correct or give the most accurate information,” Hoppe said.
 
Officials at Purdue University structure their crime alerts the same way that the University of Minnesota used to, meaning they include all available descriptors that a victim or witness reports to the police, said one of the school’s police captains, Eric Chin.
 
This method provides the public with the most information to stay safe and keeps the school in line with Clery Act, Chin said.
 
Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to disclose information about crime on and near campuses. Some of the federal act’s requirements include keeping a public crime log, an annual security report and timely warnings.
 
The act’s regulations do not specify what should be included in the warnings, but it says their information should help promote safety and prevent similar crimes.