Iannelli: Crime alerts must improve across nation

Temple and the federal government both must streamline their crime alert policies.

jerry iannelli

jerry iannelliIn light of multiple events over the course of this semester, it’s clear the Temple community deserves more from its crime alert system.

In 1986, 19-year-old college freshman Jeanne Clery was savagely raped, assaulted, lacerated and strangled in her Lehigh University dorm room by a fellow student. The assailant, later identified as 20-year-old Josoph M. Henry, reportedly sodomized Clery, cut parts of her body with a broken beer bottle, choked her with some sort of metal wire or coil and eventually took Clery’s life.

Clery’s family later sued Lehigh University for $25 million, citing multiple security lapses that may have otherwise prevented the death of their daughter had they been properly handled. In response, Senators Bill Bradley, Edward Kennedy and Pennsylvania’s own Arlen Specter introduced the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Bill into Congress, later signed into law in 1990 by President George Bush.

The bill, later renamed in honor of Clery. has been amended multiple times since its inception, and mandates – among other things – that all federally funded universities must report daily crimes to their respective student bodies, release a yearly fire and safety report and issue “timely warnings” when emergencies arise on campus, varying  from armed madmen to impending hurricanes.

Hence, the TU Ready system.

According to Temple’s Annual Fire and Safety Report, multiple senior officials at Temple are able to determine the content of alerts. Since Main Campus is situated in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, most alerts have dealt with various shootings around Temple.

There are two tiers of TU Ready notifications sent out to students. TU Advisories, used to convey information about less pressing safety matters, are shot out solely over the system’s large email list. TU Alerts are, on the other hand, sent out through both email and text message when an imminent threat is detected on campus. There have been 70 total TU Ready messages sent to the Temple community since 2010.

Messages rarely provide more information than, “There is increased police activity in the 1800 block of North Willington Street just west of 16th Street,” and to “please avoid the area.” Likewise, recipients are typically notified when areas are danger-free again.

Despite the fact that Temple’s annual Security and Fire Safety Report clearly defines the two alert tiers, Acting Executive Director of Campus Safety Services Charlie Leone said he was aware many students don’t know the difference between the two.

“We’ve worked with student government – Darin [Bartholomew] and his group – and students were saying that [the current system] was confusing,” Leone said. “We don’t want to water down the alerts, but if it’s causing confusion, maybe we need to do it.”

The Clery Act, as it has come to be known, does not stipulate exactly how universities should notify students and faculty of imminent danger. It merely mandates that notifications need to come in a “timely” manner and little else.

However, the accompanying “Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting,” issued by the U.S. Department of Education, includes an entire chapter on the proper ways to handle “timely warnings.” Though Temple’s procedures follow the handbook’s suggestions fairly closely, one guideline is left somewhat vague: a delineation of exactly what types of information the university will send out to the community in the event of an emergency.

While the handbook’s suggestions are not legally binding, multiple universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University and Shippensburg University go into greater detail than Temple does in their policy reports, offering minor explanations of the type or format of the crime alerts they send students.

Leone said TU Ready messages often come from prewritten templates, but there is no mention of this practice in Temple’s 2013 Security and Fire Safety Report or its emergency communication policy. The report merely states “Temple University will… determine the content of the notification,” with zero explanation as to what guidelines, if any, the deciding person or committee will follow when issuing an alert.

Due to the Clery Act’s fuzzy terminology, many universities do not define their exact warning procedures in stark detail. For example, the “Timely Warnings” section of Rutgers University’s annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Report is almost comically vague, existing as a single paragraph snuck into an otherwise massive manuscript.

The handbook does, however, state that “the warning should include all information that would promote safety and that would aid in the prevention of similar crimes,” and that “issuing a warning that cautions the campus community to be careful or to avoid certain practices or places is not sufficient.”

Taken as a whole, the system has not been used to its fullest extent since its inception in 2010.

As previously stated in a Temple News editorial, the system was not used to inform students displaced by a block-wide standoff on Willington Street on Oct. 13 that the Student Center had been open overnight to accommodate them.

Moreover, responses to tragedy have been inconsistent. When a student comitted suicide on the Liacouras Walk in Feb. 2012, no  official follow-up was sent by the university.

While Leone said much of the information about the standoff on Willington was rightfully held so as to not disrupt negotiations between the armed suspect and police, small but significant pieces of information about emergency preparedness or available services need to start showing up more often in crime alerts, especially at a campus as ravaged by crime as this one.

However, these road bumps pale in comparison to the way the system has reported race.

Most crime-related alerts have been accompanied by brief suspect descriptions, which in nearly every case have boiled down to describing a perpetrator as a black male of indiscriminate height and age wearing some sort of neutrally-colored sweatshirt. While no database of TU Alerts exists, a quick email search reveals that the overwhelming majority of alerts list  suspects as “black” or “African-American.”

While it’s unlikely that this is a case of blatant racism, warning students to be on the lookout for an “African-American male, 6 feet tall, wearing tan pants and a tan shirt,” as the university chose to do on Oct. 29 after an armed robbery occurred on the second floor of Anderson Hall, does little to nothing to engender public safety, and does a serious disservice to the countless black students, faculty and local residents in the area.

Moreover, the description of the Anderson Hall burglar was not only useless – it was incorrect. Leone said a basic description of the perpetrator was gathered from the victim, who was too disoriented to offer a complete or accurate portrait of the assailant in question. Upon studying further video evidence in conjunction with Philadelphia Police, the culprit was identified with video evidence, this time wearing a blue jacket and jeans.

The surveillance footage was sent out the next morning in a TU Alert, and robbery suspect Darryl Moon was apprehended by the next day. The Philadelphia Police Department would not comment on the case or any of its policies.

“The system is only as good as the information it sends out,” Leone said. “In the future, I’d love to see if there’s a way that, if we do capture people on camera, we can send it out on a text message.”

Despite the university’s frequent harping about community relations, the TU Ready system has been used repeatedly to warn a predominantly white and suburban student body that indiscriminate black men in their area are armed and dangerous.

Leone confirmed that these characterless descriptions often result in false tips from members of the Temple community and that perpetrators are typically caught due to video or photographic evidence, along with solid detective work from both the Temple and Philadelphia police departments. As such, the TU Ready system is wasting the time of local law enforcement and encouraging students and faculty to racially profile their neighbors, be it directly or indirectly.

“At the very least, we can say this is not an efficient way of finding criminals,” said Mary Catherine Roper, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Roper was part of the team that sued the Philadelphia Police Department in 2010 to put an end to its “stop-and-frisk” procedures and often deals with racially-skewed police practices.

“It’s one thing when you talk about trained police officers dealing with such vague information,” Roper said. “It’s even worse when you are talking about your average layperson who doesn’t know how much credence or how much weight or how much reaction to have to [an alert]. More information that isn’t quality information can actually be problematic.”

On April 17, Penn State’s PSUTXT alert system warned students that a potentially dangerous “black male” had made an “indirect threat” on campus grounds. After much outrage, the university published an apology letter on April 26.

“We now believe the message was too vague,” the letter said. “By issuing the statement with the limited information available, we inadvertently encouraged anxiety on the part of all black males in particular, but also among a significant portion of our faculty, students and staff on campus at that time.”

The message was only slightly more imprecise than the multitude of warnings the TU Ready system has sent students over the past few years.

Moreover, the Department of Education’s handbook encourages both the description of suspects along vague racial lines and the sending of incomplete information in the sake of timeliness. This is not exclusively a Temple issue.

Fuzzy alerts and policies are problems everywhere, but it takes living in a warzone to notice. Please avoid the area.

CORRECTION: A version of this article that appeared in print on Nov. 5 misreported that Dean of Students Stephanie Ives is able to send out alerts. While she can be consulted in the process, she is not technically able to send alerts to the Temple community.

Jerry Iannelli can be reached at jerryi@temple.edu or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.

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