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Taking Race Out of Crime Alerts?

University of Nebraska at Lincoln is under fire by students who thought police should not have mentioned in a campuswide bulletin that two men accused of sexual assault were black, believing that it reinforced harmful stereotypes.

January 17, 2019
 

After a University of Nebraska at Lincoln student was sexually assaulted in her dormitory last month, some on the campus have condemned the email bulletin that warned about her assailants because police noted that the two suspects were black.

So vehement was the criticism among students that university officials are now re-evaluating when and how racial identifiers should be included in such warnings.

The debate on whether race is relevant in campus crime alerts crops up repeatedly nationwide.

Opinions on the matter differ.

Some Nebraska students and certain advocates believe that broadcasting a suspect’s race -- which may seem innocuous and quite typical for an alert -- instead breeds fear because the notices can be vague and reinforce harmful stereotypes that black people commit crimes frequently.

Campus police officers, however, have said that federal law forces them to publicize information they have on violent crimes in a timely way, especially if suspects have not been detained and may pose a threat. They have said that descriptors, including racial ones, are important to warn the public and help police locate a perpetrator -- in the case of the sexual assault at Nebraska, the survivor didn’t know the suspects well, and so they were still a threat to campus, university officials said.

Late at night on Dec. 1, a young woman and her friend took two men, the suspects, back to a residence hall after they had met the duo earlier that evening. The student reported to police in the early hours next morning that she had been sexually assaulted.

Owen Yardley, the police chief, sent a campuswide email describing the suspects two days after the report of the student's assault. One suspect, Yardley wrote, was a black man between 5 feet 8 inches tall and 5 feet 11 inches tall with short hair who was wearing white pants, a white jacket, black shoes and a black stocking hat. The other was also a black man, also with short hair, between 6 feet and 6 feet 3 inches. He had on a black North Face jacket, a black stocking hat with the word “fancy” on the front, red Adidas pants and a white Adidas T-shirt that read "Omaha Basketball." Yardley did not share details about the survivor or the residence hall where she was attacked.

In the day following the warning, students criticized the institution for noting the suspects’ race, said spokeswoman Deb Fiddelke.

One student, Temi Onayemi, questioned in a tweet that was retweeted more than 300 times and liked 3,100 times (as of Wednesday) why the university had publicized the assault.

“Out of all the sexual assaults that happen at UNL, why is it that the first one ever blasted to every student's email deals with two black men. Before anyone tries to make any ‘not a race thing statements’ walk down Greek row, think about it, and get back to me,” Onayemi wrote.

These alerts aren’t sent to the Nebraska campus often. The university sent out three bulletins from 2015 to 2018, including the most recent one from December. All three list the suspects’ races (none were white) and concern sexual harassment or assault allegations.

“I just want to clarify, for those who think I'm sweeping the actions of the assailants under the rug. Assault of any kind is wrong, and I truthfully do hope that the men are found and dealt with accordingly. However, just because I bring up race, doesn't mean I'm overlooking the assault, I just want to make it aware that this is a problem that the black community (my community), is facing,” Onayemi continued.

Fiddelke said that because the assailants were unknown, officials wanted to make sure the campus had all the information to identify them. She said generally, the alerts are written by the police department in conjunction with the university communications office.

“We’re looking at how we do these communications,” Fiddelke said. “We are evaluating how we might do this better in the future, if we include the races or a way to do this to explain why we’re including it -- that kind of thing.”

Because these discussions have just started, Fiddelke said she couldn’t provide any more information. (Students also criticized the safety tips in the alert, saying that police officers were victim blaming when they recommended that students not bring people they don’t know back to their dormitories.)

Police chiefs have dealt with these concerns for a long time, said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Around when the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act was passed in 1990, officers warned politicians that the stipulation in the law about notifying the campus of certain offenses straight away would be problematic, Riseling said.

The Clery Act requires officials to send out a warning even if a crime on the campus hasn’t been confirmed, merely reported. And if there are not many details about a crime, police generally need to include what they do have, which may include a suspect’s race, Riseling said.

Riseling said she supports campus police forces sharing a suspect’s race because that informs the public and helps with an investigation. Only when a racial descriptor is all police have -- “a black man committed X, for example” -- should race be omitted, Riseling said.

“That doesn’t help anyone,” Riseling said. “And I understand the sensitivity -- we don’t want to reinforce that black men are raping women. But I want to ask the students, I understand you’re upset -- but how else would that have gone better? What could have been stated better?”

But some campuses have banned or minimized the use of race in crime warnings, which are generally sent out via either email or text message. Notably, at the University of Minnesota in 2015, following student complaints, the institution said it would limit references to race in its crime warnings to only “when there is sufficient detail that would help identify a specific individual or group.”

Brown University has also excluded race from its crime alerts since 2015.

Evidence suggests that, even subconsciously, the inclusion of race in these warnings can have an effect. Researchers from Harvard University conducted an experiment in 2008 in which participants read two notices about a violent crime -- they were identical, except one listed the suspect as black, the other white. The psychologists reported that those who read the crime alert blaming a black person were more likely to associate African Americans with hostility and criminality.

Their findings showed “how a single word, indicating the racial identity of an alleged crime suspect, can shift implicit and explicit stereotypes toward entire racial groups,” the researchers wrote.

Shaun Harper, an academic who leads the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, said he has experienced firsthand how race in a crime alert can influence the mood of a campus and its minority students.

In 2004, when Harper was a professor at USC, he received an email from the campus police department about a crime (he doesn’t remember what) committed by a black man in his mid- to late 20s wearing a red T-shirt and jeans.

These details stuck with Harper because, as he read the alert, he realized he matched the exact description in the email. He was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt (the USC colors are cardinal red and gold, so such attire was ubiquitous).

“There are lots of black students and black male professors and staff people who walk around this campus with jeans and red shirts,” Harper said. “Suddenly I felt incredibly unsafe. I wasn’t fearful that the criminal who was on the list would do something to me. I scared to death to walk out of my building -- someone might have thought that I was him.”

Harper said he emailed the police chief at the time, who wrote off his concerns. But Harper maintains that institutions should leave out race in these alerts, because otherwise they run the risk of profiling black students and students of other races.

“I think it’s the job of the police, not the job of faculty, staff and students, to do the work stopping the assailant, or the criminal. I just don’t think the descriptions of race are necessary,” Harper said.

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