Letter to the Editor: Implications of crime alerts
Campus Crime Alerts: Safety from what, for whom, and, at what cost?
Since the beginning of the academic school year, at least 16 campus crime alerts have been issued by the Towson University Police Department. The alerts have notified the campus community about six off-campus, armed robberies of individuals. Two off-campus, unarmed robberies of individuals, two armed robberies of businesses, one robbery/stabbing, one indecent exposure incident, one rape and one on-campus burglary. One carjacking alert was later rescinded as an erroneous. The two most recent alerts have been about a theft misidentified as a robbery and about a person “possibly armed with a handgun.” There is no indication of what crime this “possibly armed” person may have committed to warrant an all campus alert. In thirteen of the alerts—all robbery reports, the “carjacking” report, as well as the most recent theft and “possibly armed reports—suspects are identified as African American men. In one alert—indecent exposure—the suspect is identified as a white male. In two cases—rape and a third member of a robbery reported on Oct. 21—suspects are males of an unidentified race.
The purpose of this Letter to the Editor is to make the following arguments about our current approach to campus alerts.
- They create an unsafe learning environment for Towson University’s African American males, and
- They distort the nature and frequency of campus-related crime.
With regard to the first argument, the current pattern in campus crime alerts perpetuates deeply seeded and highly problematic stereotypes of African American males as violent criminals. In addition, it fosters an environment conducive to racial fear. A few anecdotal pieces of evidence demonstrate these effects:
- In discussions with students about the recent rash of crime alerts, two reactions stand out. One student, a white female, recounted a story of her and three friends driving near campus. They came upon a group of African American men and one of her friends quickly reminded everyone to lock their doors. The second student, an African American male, shared how he responds to the campus alerts: he checks the height (when given) and clothing description of the suspect, then checks what he is wearing in an effort to ensure that he will not be mistaken for the suspect.
- We have also heard accounts of another African American male student’s Halloween costume— a hooded sweatshirt with the words “Towson’s Crime Alert Suspect” inscribed on it.
- Last year’s crime alerts served as the primary justification for the White Student Union’s “nighttime patrols.” These patrols were justified based upon the faulty logic that “every single day black predators prey upon the majority white Towson University student body.” In the online comments section of September Towerlight article, members of the WSU have renewed their call for campus patrols.
- Finally, a crime log report from Nov. 1, 2013 states, “Several female resident students reported seeing a suspicious male meeting the description of a male listed in a TU alert” (Report #: 13-00977). The report is recorded as “closed.”
Though anecdotal, each of these stories reveals the unintended consequences of our current approach to promoting “campus safety.”
There are social costs to repeatedly exposing the campus community to crime alerts that emphasize one type of crime and one type of offender. Understanding these social costs not only requires us to think beyond narrow definitions of “safety” but also forces us to ask, “Who are we trying to protect?” What we have learned from years of legal struggle about what constitutes a hostile climate is that safety is not limited to being free from direct victimization. It also entails the freedom to exist in an environment that is free from pervasive, intimidating, and/or abusive practices. The safety of Towson’s African American male population is being threatened by the current form our crime alerts have taken. African American male students are now at increased risk of being misidentified as a “crime alert suspect” and are forced to operate under a cloud of perpetual suspicion.
As important, current crime alert reporting practices foster the development of a climate of racialized fear that is socially dangerous. (Racialized fear is fear that takes on racial associations or undertones. In this case, it means a general fear of African American men because of their assumed association with violent criminality). It was a similar climate of racialized fear that resulted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida in February 2012. Rather than helping to create an environment that enhances safety for all campus community members, the crime alerts support a dynamic in which “our” safety is pitted against “theirs.” This is not the dynamic we should be fostering on our campus.
Now, we turn to the second argument. According to the University Police website, the purpose of posting “timely crime alerts” is to “promote awareness of potential safety situations in the campus community.” The website encourages recipients to “review these crime alerts and take reasonable steps toward maintaining personal safety.” In other words, the purpose of the crime alerts is to make us more aware so that we can avoid becoming victims.
The recent email from the University President about the crime alerts and the subsequent increased patrols of the campus and nearby areas gives the impression that there is something unique happening around campus this semester. Given that the crimes being reported are almost exclusively robberies, this begs the question: are experiencing some sort of robbery crime wave? According to the Baltimore County Police Department website, in 2012, there were 160 robberies reported in Towson’s Precinct (Precinct 6). Between January and June of this year, 75 robberies have been reported. While this suggests that robberies are not uncommon in the larger Towson area, it is difficult to tell if something unique is happening near Towson University as these counts include robberies that may occur some distance from campus.
According to more recent robbery data (beginning July 1 and ending Nov. 3), there have been eleven armed robberies, five unarmed robberies and two attempted robberies within about a two-mile radius of the University. Of these seventeen robberies, campus alerts have been issued for eleven, the first of which occurred on Aug. 13, 2013. In the months of July, August, and September, there have been four robberies each. In October, there were three. Admittedly, the data is imperfect but it does suggest that, at the least first two full months of school, there does not appear to more robberies now than in the most recent past.
What does appear to be different, however, is that in August of this year, TUPD began to be more systematic in its inclusion of Baltimore County Police robbery reports in its campus alerts. While campus alerts from the previous academic year include some Baltimore County Police reports, off-campus events do not appear to be included as consistently as they have been recently. Eleven campus alerts were issued between July and December 2012: Four were for on-campus thefts, four were for off-campus, armed robberies, two were for unarmed, off-campus robberies and one was a sexual crime. Suspects for on-campus thefts were two white males, one white female and one male of an unknown race. Suspects for the off-campus robberies and the sexual offense were African American males. Campus alerts from previous years were more likely to include on-campus crimes and to include white suspects.
In short, this academic year it appears that campus alerts are being issued more frequently, with a greater emphasis on (certain) crimes that occur off of campus, and with increased prominence of crimes committed by African American males [emphasis theirs]. And, though it would require more data to determine this conclusively, there is reason to suspect that the growing fear about off-campus crime may be more the result of changes in reporting practices rather than changes in crime patterns.
A closer look at TUPD’s monthly campus crime logs or at the crimereports.com website, demonstrates that campus alerts do not capture the reality of crime on campus or its immediate surroundings. (Unfortunately, the most recent Uniform Crime Report Data available on the TUPD website is from 2010 so we cannot offer information on recent broad, annual trends of on-campus crimes. Further, robberies are included under the umbrella of “violent crimes” which also includes counts for aggravated assault and rape. Finally, the campus crime log for September 2012 is currently incorrect—the linked document includes data from October rather than September). Campus monthly reports demonstrate that the much of on-campus crime are alcohol- and drug-related offenses, traffic disputes, thefts, and assaults. Data from the crimereports.com website suggest that victims in the surrounding areas of Towson University are more likely to experience an assault, theft, or sexual offense than they are a robbery. From July 1 until Nov. 3, there have been 632 crimes reported to the Baltimore County Police for the area within about 1.5 miles of campus—crimes are listed from the most frequently reported to the least (the list excludes breaking and entering, and shoplifting): theft (261,includes identity theft, thefts of/from vehicles, etc.), assaults (100), sexual assaults (20, includes four rape and 16 other sexual assaults), and 17 robberies.
Undoubtedly, the inclusion of robbery in campus alerts is based in part on the fact that robbery is an interpersonal crime that involves the threat or actual use of violence. It is a crime that people are likely to find more fearsome than theft, even if they are more likely to be victimized by theft than robbery. But, similar arguments could be made about assault and sexual assault—these interpersonal crimes also include the threat or actual use of violence; yet, crime alerts about these crimes are rare. Below is the list of rape and other sexual offenses that have occurred near campus since July 1, 2012. There are too many assault crimes to list each independently, but about one fourth of the 100 incidents reported since July 1 occur on York Road somewhere between the Administration Building and Dulaney Valley Road.
Date and Time
|All Other Sex Offenses||7/1/2013 16:11||500 Block VIRGINIA AV|
|All Other Sex Offenses||7/9/2013 20:50||700 Block BOSLEY AV|
|All Other Sex Offenses||7/9/2013 20:50||700 Block BOSLEY AV|
|All Other Sex Offenses||7/12/2013 15:31||700 Block JOPPA RD E|
|All Other Sex Offenses||7/28/2013 11:50||8000 Block YORK RD|
|All Other Sex Offenses||8/7/2013 20:01||700 Block BOSLEY AV|
|All Other Sex Offenses||8/10/2013 20:11||700 Block BOSLEY AV|
|All Other Sex Offenses||8/12/2013 10:17||100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W|
|Rape||8/16/2013 17:37||1 Block GLENLUCE CT|
|All Other Sex Offenses||8/17/2013 0:17||100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W|
|All Other Sex Offenses||8/28/2013 7:13||700 Block JOPPA RD E|
|All Other Sex Offenses||9/6/2013 8:52||700 Block JOPPA RD E|
|All Other Sex Offenses||9/9/2013 13:57||600 Block GOUCHER BLVD|
|Rape||9/16/2013 18:28||100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W|
|All Other Sex Offenses||9/21/2013 16:31||800 Block DULANEY VALLEY RD|
|Rape||9/21/2013 21:11||100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W|
|Rape||9/25/2013 2:24||1 Block WITHERWOOD CT|
|All Other Sex Offenses||9/27/2013 14:09||100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W|
|All Other Sex Offenses||10/4/2013 13:32||100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W|
|All Other Sex Offenses||10/10/2013 17:23||6700 Block CHARLES STREET AV|
It is important to note that there is good evidence to suggest that sexual victimization is consistently underreported crime on college campuses. Data from one study conducted by Towson University faculty (Pryor & Hughes, 2013) demonstrates this; nearly one third of women from three universities and one college in the Mid-Atlantic region report sexual victimization. (Assuming that half of Towson’s current student population of approximately 22,000 students are women, this would translate into about 3,000 women). In addition, women who reported victimization were most likely to report that they knew their attacker; women were three times as likely to report that they were raped by a known offender rather than a stranger, and more than twice as likely to report being sexual assaulted by a known offender rather than a stranger. In other words, sexual assault by someone the victim knows—which, on a college campus, may include other students—is more likely than a stranger attack.
Reviewing of campus crime logs reveals a curious pattern in terms of recording rape reports. On Aug. 30, 2013, a “resident student reported being raped off of campus” (Report #: 13-00641). The incident is recorded as a “rape report.” On Oct. 6, 2103, a “resident student reported being raped at [an] off campus party” (Report #: 13-00840). The report is listed as a “well being check.” On Oct. 11, 2013, a “resident student reported as [sic] intoxicated visitor may have been sexually assaulted off campus” (Report #: 13-00862). The incident is listed as “police information.” Finally, on Nov. 3, 2013, “a female resident student reported she had been raped” (Report #: 13-00999). Further notes on this case reveal that the Baltimore County Police detectives who interviewed the student determined that all acts “were consensual and the rape was unfounded.” Unlike the two of the three other reports of rape, however, this incident is listed as “rape report.” Why are only two of the four reported off-campus rapes—one of which found the rape accusation to be unfounded—listed as rape incidents?
The point of discussing crime data in more detail is not to further stoke the flames of fear but to put crime on and near campus into proper perspective. If the ultimate objective of crime alerts is to create an environment where students, faculty, and staff are made more aware of their personal safety, there are more effective and appropriate means of accomplishing this goal than focusing their attention on a small proportion of crimes presumably committed by a certain type of offender. Crime alerts should focus on making the campus community more aware of the types of crimes they are most likely to experience, offering them concrete strategies for reducing their likelihood of victimization, and detailing options for reporting when they do experience victimization. Further, given that there is evidence to suggest that rape is both underreported and inconsistently handled, increased attention should be paid to this form of victimization. The Counseling Center currently offers printed materials on what to do when sexually assaulted but resources for sexual assault victims should not be limited to the counseling office. These resources (as well as others) should also be available on the TU Police Department website. In addition, police protocols for handling these types of cases should be clarified to the campus community.
For more information, contact Elyshia Aseltine at firstname.lastname@example.org