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Letter to the Editor: Implications of crime alerts

13 November 2013 By Elyshia Aseltine, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice & Tara Bynum, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English 18 Comments

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 One carjacking alert was later rescinded as an erroneous.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.

  1. They create an unsafe learning environment for Towson University’s African American males, and
  2. 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 easeltine@towson.edu


  • Lois Havlacek said:

    Thank you for this analysis. The increase in crime alerts has gotten ridiculous, and the school and police need to rethink what they are doing. I get more crime alerts weekly (almost daily) in my TU e-mail than I do from my professors, department and fellow students – that just should not be.

  • Classified Sydney said:

    That is because you reside in Towson.

  • Amber B said:

    While this is a detailed analysis you are inferrin that the whole of the blame falls on the police departments. Though it is their job to protect and inform us they can only go off of the information and resources they are given. The suspect descriptions provided in the emails are given by victims and possibly witnesses. If all that these people can give us is a height, skin color, and clothing what are the police supposed to do? I’m not saying that changed are not needed. They are. I am just trying to point out that we have basicailly been blaming TUPD for these crimes instead of trying to prevent them. Be aware of your surroundings, Towson. If you are a victim try to look for distinctions that might provide more help like scars, birthmarks, do they have a limp, etc?

    We need to stop assigning the blame and start working WITH the police to make Towson a safer place to live.

  • nug tun said:

    Back to reality. Where do statistics come from? If they are honest then they come from actual events. You can’t blame facts. If the majority of crime around TU is caused by young black males whose fault is that – not the TUPD and certainly not the victims? Facts are not biased. Facts are not prejudice. Facts are blind to race.

    There are lots of students on-campus and off-campus. They all have the right to be safe. So alerts for all types of crimes should be reported with every minute detail of the criminal included. Race, height, build, hair color/style, clothing, every minute detail that helps capture the criminal. If that so happens to build a pattern where the majority of criminals committing the crimes are Asian-Americans and that creates an innate fear of young Asian-Americans, well, sorry, that’s not my fault.

    Let’s not forget the top priority here – keeping the students safe. Everything, everything is secondary to that.

  • Apparent said:

    Can you explain to a parent of a TU student how safety is a “narrow” issue? How about explaining it to the family of one of the crime victims? How about explaining that it’s more important, or even as important to consider if someone’s feelings are hurt when a human being has been violently attacked?

    We are talking about students being stabbed for a phone! what’s going to happen when someone dies in one of these attacks?

    I think physical dangers far outweigh any “social dangers” that might exist in this situation.

    Profiling happens all the time with everyone. It’s a “spidey sense” that doesn’t have anything to do with race. If it looks or feels wrong it is wrong.

  • keiths said:

    Uh, If you do your homework you will see that college campuses are required by federal law to produce crime alerts for specified crimes which occur on or in the vicinity of the campus. I learned this in my CJ class last year. Its called the Clery Act.

  • Darnell said:

    “The safety of Towson’s African American male population is being threatened by the current form our crime alerts have taken.” Really? Your evidence is that one black kid was afraid he’d be mistaken for the suspect. Then you related the crime alerts to the Trayvon Martin case. Was racial fear the cause of his shooting as you suggest, or was his assault on George Zimmerman the cause? Ultimately, the safety of Towson’s African American male population is being threatened by the criminals in the crime alerts. The crime alerts have yet to stab anybody, and have yet to steal a single phone.

    You don’t even have a clear call to action to accompany your first racially hypersensitive misguided argument. It sounds like you are accusing TUPD of racism. Do you want them to report less on black crime and report more on white crime? It certainly does seem unfair that whites and blacks are not equally represented in the crime reports.

    You go on to say, “Campus alerts from previous years were more likely…to include white suspects.” – How is this even a complaint? You have 0 evidence to suggest that white crime is either equal or greater in proportion to black crime this year, compared to previous years. All of your evidence appears to suggests that more crimes are being committed by black people this year. But perhaps the TUPD have a huge file titled, “white crimes the public shall NEVER know about!”

    You started one paragraph claiming sexual victimization is underreported – your evidence to support this is a study that shows women know their attacker. Nothing else in that paragraph. Maybe you should have used another anecdote to prove your point.

    You spend another paragraph pondering the semantics of 4 rape reports and coming to 0 conclusions.

    If you want a better educated public, altering the crime alerts isn’t the way to go. Towson is legally required to alert us of these crimes for a reason. Immediate threats require immediate communication to ensure the physical well being of the student here at Towson. Not once did you even concede that there are positives to the system in place.

  • Gabrielle Slocum said:

    This is a phenomenal analysis of a rough situation. I see where some other people who have commented are coming from in that the police really only have what the victims say to go on in their reports and I’m not disagreeing with that. However, this article is saying that there is quite possibly a lot of on-campus and close to campus crime that we’re not hearing anything about and whether these crimes are being done by African American Males, Caucasian Males, Asian Females etc. I think we should be informed of them. Looking over the data provided I would do everything in my power to avoid being on the 100 block of Susquehanna W Ave. TUPD should in no way lie to the community. If an on campus crime is committed by a 6’1″ African American Male in a dark hooded sweatshirt then we should hear about that but our Crime reports should include types of crime that are closer to campus and more dangerous to the student population.

  • Vee said:

    “Assuming that half of Towson’s current student population of approximately 22,000 students are women, this would translate into about 3,000 women”… Wow. it’s like you’ve never been on campus. Towson’s student body is over 60 percent female. If you can’t bother to do the most basic research, why should I trust your claims?
    I understand what you are trying to argue, but you just don’t have the data needed to support this.

  • lol said:

    And suddenly its a race issue. Because of course, everything becomes a race issue when crime is involved.

  • Tom said:

    Your sexual assault inward campus data isn’t correct, perhaps you should have taken into the reporting addresses, many times the report address is the police station because its a walk in report or to protect the victim. You notice many took place at the jail as well.
    All Other Sex Offenses 7/9/2013 20:50 700 Block BOSLEY AV is the Baltimore County detention center
    All Other Sex Offenses 7/12/2013 15:31 700 Block JOPPA RD E is the Baltimore County police headquarters
    All Other Sex Offenses 8/12/2013 10:17 100 Block SUSQUEHANNA AV W loaction of the Towson police precinct.

  • Katherane Worthington said:

    First of all, I just want to say that a critique of the University’s text-alert system isn’t meant to belittle the experience of those who have actually been assaulted or robbed, it is part of larger social justice concerns.

    I was very relieved to see this well-articulated rebuttal to the University’s approach to safety. I know that my text-alert subscription will be expiring soon and I do not plan to renew it. In an anthropology class I am currently taking, we were just discussing how the crime reports are conspicuously selective and reenforce racial and gender hierarchies by making some crimes ‘invisible’. I was especially satisfied to see the reports of sexual assault in this essay because to me, that is the logical trajectory of this critique: If you are reporting crime allegedly committed by young black males, why not report on-campus sexual assault… or hate speech? I think this debate will yield new ideas about what constitutes ‘victimization’

    Thanks again to the authors of this essay.

  • Darnell said:

    The txt alerts don’t reinforce racial stereotypes. The criminals themselves do that. Blame the criminals, don’t blame the people stating the facts. Also, in response to Katherane, nobody needs instant notification of hate speech. Who’s gonna go “oh hate speech reported on Bosley? Better walk in a group to my car today.” People signed up for the txt alerts for the sake of their immediate safety. We shouldn’t have to report everything just to make sure the crime alerts are racially diverse enough.

  • Katherane Worthington said:

    Darnell, Thanks for your interest in my comment. I don’t think hate speech should be a text-message alert, I was trying to make the point that there are many instances of violence that are not reported as crimes on campus. Focusing only on crimes that involve young black suspects creates a situation in which fear becomes mixed with racism. I understand that the text-message alerts relate real crimes that have been committed but the mass dissemination of text messages *vaguely* incriminating young black men, to 22,000 + people has consequences for our campus community that extend far beyond the scene of the crime. If the police department is going to send out a description of a suspect, maybe that description should not be sent out unless they have more information on the suspect’s appearance. Something other than ‘young black male.’ That could literally be ANYONE. That is the problem…

  • Darnell said:

    “Focusing only crimes that involve young black males” – this statement sounds racist. You are either saying that TUPD is making an effort to not include white crime, or you are suggesting that only black people commit crimes. Also, you want the police to be less descriptive? Would you prefer it if they said “the suspect has a big nose” well wouldn’t that foster an unsafe environment for people with big noses? Ever little bit of information counts. If you had it your way, you would have the police intentionally withhold information and endanger the lives of the little black jewsish children who don’t know what the suspects look like.

  • Blood on Your Hands said:

    If anything is changed to the policy of alerting concerned citizens of all races in the Towson area of the onslaught of black crime due the idiocy of this article then the author in fact has blood on his or her hands. This is one of the most sad attempts I have ever read to of course have sympathy for the criminals by not invoking their race and no regard for the victims or that of future victims. You liberal mindset is very dangerous. Just hope you our your friends are not next on the list. This is becoming an epidemic in what was once an incredible well respected and safe place to be. Please refrain from writing anymore hack pieces

  • kenenth said:

    Just because I am tired of hearing all the ranting about why the police publish crime alerts and that they “ONLY” do it for black males… In reality, they are required to publish crime alerts for all the following crimes only, whether perpetrated by blacks, whites, Asians, etc…….. It just so happens that they are being committed mainly by black males… Has nothing to do with anything else.. No one is trying to distort the facts.. Learn a little, be less ignorant.

    “The Clery Act requires colleges and universities:

    Publish an Annual Security Report (ASR) by October 1, documenting three calendar years of select campus crime statistics including security policies and procedures and information on the basic rights guaranteed victims of sexual assault. The law requires schools make the report available to all current students and employees, and prospective students and employees must be notified of its existence and given a copy upon request. Schools may comply with this requirement via the internet if required recipients are notified and provided exact information regarding the on-line location of the report. Paper copies of the ASR should be available upon request. All crime statistics must be provided to the U.S. Department of Education.

    To have a public crime log. Institutions with a police or security department are required to maintain a public crime log documenting the “nature, date, time, and general location of each crime” and its disposition, if known. Incidents must be entered into the log within two business days. The log should be accessible to the public during normal business hours; remain open for 60 days and, subsequently, made available within two business days upon request.

    Disclose crime statistics for incidents that occur on campus, in unobstructed public areas immediately adjacent to or running through the campus and at certain non-campus facilities including Greek housing and remote classrooms. The statistics must be gathered from campus police or security, local law enforcement and other school officials who have “significant responsibility for student and campus activities.” The Clery Act requires reporting of crimes in seven major categories, some with significant sub-categories and conditions:

    1.Criminal Homicide
    a.Murder & Nonnegligent manslaughter
    b.Negligent manslaughter

    2.Sex Offensesa.Forcible


    4.Aggravated Assault

    5.Burglary, where:
    a.There is evidence of unlawful entry (trespass), which may be either forcible or not involve force.

    b.Unlawful entry must be of a structure – having four walls, a roof, and a door.

    c.There is evidence that the entry was made in order to commit a felony or theft.

    6.Motor Vehicle Theft


    Schools are also required to report statistics for the following categories of arrests or referrals for campus disciplinary action (if an arrest was not made):

    1.Liquor Law Violations
    2.Drug Law Violations
    3.Illegal Weapons Possession

    Hate crimes must be reported by category of prejudice, including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability. Statistics are also required for four additional crime categories if the crime committed is classified as a hate crime:

    2.Simple Assault
    4.Destruction/Damage/Vandalism of Property

    ​Issue timely warnings about Clery Act crimes which pose a serious or ongoing threat to students and employees. Institutions must provide timely warnings in a manner likely to reach all members of the campus community. This mandate has been part of the Clery Act since its inception in 1990. Timely warnings are limited to those crimes an institution is required to report and include in its ASR. There are differences between what constitutes a timely warning and an emergency notification; however, both systems are in place to safeguard students and campus employees.

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