Vague crime alerts enable stereotyping
Students who pay attention to University crime alerts may notice a pattern — most of the time, the description of the suspect includes two certain words: "black" and "male."
The Clery Act, which requires all institutions of higher education that receive federal student aid funding to disclose information about crime on their campuses that poses a continuing threat to students or employees. The University falls into this category, but some question whether they act as a deterrent to crime or an aid to police.
"Logically speaking, I can't see how telling everyone, essentially, to be on the lookout for young black men, early 20s, between 5 feet 8 [inches tall] and 6 feet is going to have any practical value," said Paul Hirschfield, a professor of sociology at the University.
In fact, Hirschfield said such generic information could cultivate a culture of anxiety among students. Information like that included in crime alerts may lead people to think of crime in racial terms.
"Such information may even lead students to be unnecessarily fearful and cautious when encountering people who fit these generic descriptions," he said. "On the other hand, if information on fairly unique characteristics like scars or tattoos is also provided, I would expect it to be of greater practical value."
But Rutgers University Police Department Chief Rhonda Harris said, while victims are never to blame, their circumstances may make it hard to come up with a thorough description.
"I don't want to imply that a poor description or the circumstance of any crime is the fault of the victim," she said. "I think they're doing the best job they can with giving us the information they recall about the situation."
The goal of crime alerts is to create awareness among the student body using the most information that may be released without causing additional harm, Harris said. Therefore, in some situations, such as a sexual assault that took place on College Avenue earlier this month, details about a suspect may not be revealed at all in an effort to protect a victim.
"When we put out something with minimum information, we try to balance [whether it] is … helpful — is this going to be something that helps somebody out there to avoid getting themselves in the same circumstance?" Harris said. "The information regarding suspect description is important, even if it's limited."
That particular case, which took place on a weekend when a male student invaded a female student's room in a residence hall, presented an opportunity to bring light to issues of security on campus, she said.
"The purpose of that crime alert was to notify members of the community that are in residence halls that this can happen inside residence halls, too," Harris said. "For somebody to be victimized inside their room is terrible."
The notifications are intended to be a prompt for alertness, she said.
"It reminds the community of safety precautions they need to be taking … and people actually respond to the crime alerts," Harris said.
Hirschfield was a bit skeptical about how helpful the alerts truly are.
"I would be pleasantly surprised if the generic information on robbery suspects that is typically provided in these e-mails, such as race, sex, height, clothes and approximate age, has ever empowered Rutgers students and staff to help stop or capture robbers," he said.
While Harris did not have statistical information about how many people respond to crime alerts the department issues, she said they have led to police solving crimes.
"Do we get [a response] for every one? No." she said. "Do we get them every once in awhile and they have some value? Yes."
Still, Hirschfield said although including the race of suspects in crime alerts does not create stereotypes about certain groups, studies show they do affirm beliefs about them.
"Because of ubiquitous racialized images of crime in the American media, the association between race and crime is firmly and inevitably embedded in the conscious and unconscious minds of white Americans," Hirschfield said. "You can't escape it. As long as you're immersed in American culture, you harbor this association."
No matter what, Harris said it is important that people remember that 99 percent of people on campus and in the New Brunswick area are not criminals. Alerts that contain similar descriptions most likely look the same because the same people are involved in the incidents, she said.
"I'd like to remind people not to stereotype people," she said. "These crime alerts are not intended to contribute to people's stereotypical beliefs. It's about being safe and making smart decisions about being safe. Everybody needs to monitor themselves for their own biases."
Quadeer Porter, president of Black Men's Collective, an organization on campus that works to increase the dialogue about issues that affect black males on campus, said guidelines that help students know to look out for more specific features before a crime takes place can improve crime alerts.
"It just says it's somebody black. Well, they are different variances of black — light-skinned, dark-skinned," he said. "I understand their hands are tied … but I would like to see more refined guidelines [about] describing the person."
But Porter also suggested other ideas to reduce crime itself without having a focus on race, such as creating a map showing the areas where most crimes take place on and around campus and having better lighting and more cameras in certain areas.
The structure of crime alerts currently issued by RUPD makes it less likely that people will use them efficiently, Porter said.
"For my group of friends, it's more of a joke, actually," he said. "I think that's even worse than a fear. … You're even less inclined to be conscious of your surroundings. They're making a joke out of a serious situation — people getting attacked."
Instead of issuing such crime alerts after victims have already been attacked, officials in the city of New Brunswick and the University must work to combat the prevalence of crime overall, Porter said.
"Most of these problems [are caused by] people around our age. These are our peers out there doing crimes," he said. "We're here in college to progress a social agenda where we live. I would like to see the leaders come together and really say ‘What are we going to do, and how are we going to collaborate to solve these problems?'"
RUPD is working to prevent future crime with more foot patrols, both uniformed and plainclothes, and is cooperating with the New Brunswick Police Department to pool resources, especially in its effort to prevent off-campus crimes, Harris said.