Race and Crime Alerts

U. of Minnesota restricts (but does not ban) racial identifications in messages about suspects. Should other colleges, facing criticism from minority students, follow suit?

February 26, 2015
Poster promoting a protest at LSU

The University of Minnesota announced Wednesday that it would limit when its crime alerts include references to a suspect's race. Instead of routinely including such information in crime alerts, it will be used only "when there is sufficient detail that would help identify a specific individual or group."

The announcement follows months of campus discussion and a building takeover this month in which ending the use of racial classifications in crime alerts was one of the demands. The students who organized this month's building takeover criticized Wednesday's change as inadequate.

And the issue of racial identifications prompted a rally this month at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and considerable debate at Yale University, where a black male student was detained at gunpoint based on police having been told by witnesses to look for a tall African-American male, of college age, as a suspect in a crime (not committed by the student who was detained).

Many police departments (campus and otherwise) routinely use racial descriptions when issuing crime reports or alerts. Colleges are required to notify students of crimes that may pose a danger, and so send out e-mails or text messages to students with whatever details the campus authorities opt to provide. As a result, many students are more aware of the way their campus police report on crime suspects than are members of the general public, who may not normally know that police are looking for someone with particular characteristics.

Minority students argue that these alerts are too vague to do anything but stigmatize those -- in particular, black male students -- who may in fact look nothing like someone actually accused of a crime. An essay in The Minnesota Daily last year, for example, cited a crime report that stated that suspects in a crime were black males between the heights of 5 feet 5 inches and 6 feet 2 inches. "This height range alone covers most adult men in the United States. As of 2014, there are approximately 2,400 black students on the Twin Cities campus. If this report were to be acted upon, more than a thousand black male students, faculty and staff could become potential suspects," the op-ed said.

Noting that unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police officers, the op-ed said it was irresponsible and unfair to include racial descriptions.

"Stop putting us in mortal physical, psychological and spiritual danger, and stop reporting the races of crime suspects in campus crime alerts," concluded the essay, by two graduate students.

The issue of vague reports (except for race) sparked a protest this month at LSU. The rally -- which featured demands to drop the use of racial identifications -- was prompted by a crime alert that identified a suspect as a "black male wearing dark hoodie." Protesters said that all black men were being turned into targets. (A spokesman for LSU said that the university has not issued a statement on the incident or changed its policies on crime alerts.)

Eric W. Kaler, president at Minnesota, announced the new policy in an e-mail distributed Wednesday, and officials noted that it wasn't just about racial descriptions, but any descriptions -- and that the policy going forward would be to include them only when they could meaningfully help identify an individual suspect.

In his e-mail, Kaler noted the concerns of minority students. "We have heard from many in our community that the use of race in suspect descriptions in our crime alerts may unintentionally reinforce racist stereotypes of black men, and other people of color, as criminals and threats. That in turn can create an oppressive climate for some members of our community, a climate of suspicion and hostility," he wrote.

At the same time, Kaler added that there is value in providing detail on suspects. "[A]n informed community is a safer community," he wrote. "We will continue to use crime alerts in the belief that they help individuals in our community avoid becoming victims of crime."

Minnesota officials said they had analyzed 51 crime alerts since 2012 that included descriptions of suspects. In about 30 percent of those cases, there was so little detail that, under the new policy, racial and other characteristics would not be shared in the future. In the other cases, however, the university study found that there was legitimate reason to include the identifying characteristics.

It doesn't appear that Minnesota's shift will end criticism over the issue. Whose Diversity is the group that took over the president's office at Minnesota one day this month over a range of issues, including racial identifications in crime reports. In a statement, the group called the changes that were announced Wednesday "bread crumbs meant to pacify dissent and halt further actions toward justice."

Detailing its concerns, Whose Diversity's statement said it was frustrated that the university indicated awareness of student feelings about the racial descriptions, but that the university didn't seem to understand that the issue goes well beyond feelings.

"Why does the administration think removing racial descriptors from only a third of crime alerts is sufficient, when racialized crime alerts feed a system that literally kills black people daily in this country?” the statement asked. "This is to say nothing of how constant threats to the safety of black students impact their studies, mental health and ability to graduate -- racialized crime alerts have consequences far more pervasive and consequential than mere 'feelings' in the lives of students of color. Racialized crime alerts put the psychological, academic and physical survival of students of color on the line. It must be asked: How committed is the administration to truly ensuring that Black lives matter on this campus? On what side of history does the university administration want to be?"


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