Behind Yale’s crime e-mails

Consistent with federal reporting requirements, Yale University Police Department Chief James Perrotti sends e-mails to the entire Yale community informing them of crimes on or near campus. And he’s sending them more now than ever before.

The e-mails — whose subject line, “Message from Chief Perrotti,” appeared in campus inboxes dozens of times last year — began in 2003. But while crime in the YPD’s jurisdiction, which includes campus and University-owned property, significantly decreased from 2007 to 2008, the number of e-mails Perrotti sent out almost tripled — from 12 to 32 — during that same period.

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Whether the Yale community receives an e-mail about an incident hinges on a decision made jointly by Perrotti and Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith. And, as demonstrated by the disparity between crime and notification, the standards employed to make that decision are anything but black and white.

TO SEND OR NOT TO SEND?

On Feb. 16, 2008, a Yale Law School student was mugged while walking at 11:30 p.m. at Edgewood Avenue and Dwight Street, close to campus and near many Yale students’ off-campus residences. On March 17, 2009, at 5:30 p.m. a man was shot while sitting in his car at the same corner.

An e-mail was sent out about the first incident but not the second.

Highsmith said she and Perrotti talked about sending an e-mail for the second incident but decided against it after learning that the two individuals involved knew each other and the shooting did not pose a direct threat to the Yale community.

Kasey Alvarado ’11, who lives in Saybrook College three blocks away, said she would have appreciated getting an e-mail about this incident.

“If someone is getting shot near where I walk by regularly, I want to know about it,” she said. “I don’t care if it wasn’t directed at a Yale student.”

Whether an incident warrants a campuswide e-mail, Highsmith said, is a judgment call. Two main factors go into the decision: the location and the nature of the crime. An e-mail notification is more likely as events occur closer to campus or closer to where many members of the Yale community live, she said. E-mails about crimes that pose ongoing threats, rather than isolated incidents, are also more probable.

Though e-mails are more likely to be sent if the crime involves a member of the Yale community, several instances over the past year involved Yale affiliates but did not warrant e-mails. On Feb. 26, for example, a Timothy Dwight College sophomore was the victim of a mugging outside the U-Haul rental store on Whalley Avenue. The campus was not notified.

And sometimes Highsmith and Perrotti decide to send e-mails to just a portion of the Yale community.

On Feb. 11, a homicide occurred at 82 Munson St., just one block from Yale’s 25 Science Park. Highsmith and Perrotti decided an e-mail to the whole campus was not necessary because the incident was the result of domestic violence and thus did not pose an ongoing threat.

Perrotti did send an e-mail to employees who work at 25 Science Park to inform them of the incident. Highsmith said this was done because there was a lot of police activity in the neighborhood and Yale officials wanted people to know why the police were there.

AN INCREASE IN MESSAGES

There was no change in the standards used in deciding whether to send out an e-mail in 2008, Highsmith said. More e-mails were sent out in 2008 because, she explained, more incidents occurred which met her and Perrotti’s standards.

Though Highsmith said the increase in sent e-mails was in part due to an uptick in gun violence in New Haven, last year only two of the 32 e-mails sent referenced a shooting. The vast majority reported robberies, which in fact decreased on and around campus from 2007 to 2008. Many of the robberies involved handguns.

In addition to robberies, one e-mail alerted the campus of an acquaintance rape, which Highsmith said warranted an e-mail because it could pose an ongoing threat as there have been cases of serial acquaintance rapists. The e-mail also served to increase awareness of rape on campus, she said.

Most of the e-mails, Highsmith added, were also prompted by incidents on the outer limits of Yale’s boundaries.

“What we are doing is trying to be as diligent as we can in letting the community know about those incidents that are occurring on our boundaries because a lot of Yale folks either live or travel in the areas outside of campus,” she said.

While there is always the fear that the e-mails might unnecessarily scare people, the feedback on the e-mails has been very positive, Highsmith said.

“I think people appreciate knowing that somebody’s looking after them and closely monitoring things for them,” she said.

Federal law mandates that universities alert students and staff to ongoing threats, but it does not expressly mandate that a university send out e-mails. Like Yale, however, most universities send out e-mails to their campuses to alert them of at least some crimes.

Though every Ivy League school alerts its campus community via e-mail about serious threats to safety, not every school sends e-mails to report crimes such as robberies.

Princeton University, for example, sends out “Campus Crime and/or Safety Alerts” via e-mail if there is an incident that Princeton Public Safety thinks presents an ongoing threat to the rest of the community, Director of Princeton Public Safety Steven Healy said in an e-mail message.

Healy said Princeton typically sends out approximately 10 such alerts per year.

A CHANGE IN TONE

Not only has the frequency of the e-mails changed over the years, but their tone has as well.

Prior to June 2007, Perrotti’s e-mails had a much more personal quality. He used to begin his e-mails differently each time, with phrases such as “I am distressed to report,” or “Unfortunately there were two serious incidents last night.”

Starting in June 2007, the tone changed to become more formal, and until this year every e-mail sent by Perrotti alerting the campus to a crime began with the now-familiar line, “Consistent with federal reporting requirements and in order to increase awareness of personal safety,” or a similar phrase.

Highsmith, who writes the e-mails in coordination with Perrotti, said the change was a result of discussions with University President Richard Levin and the other officers of the University.

“They wanted to be sure that the community knew that we were doing two things, responding to federal law and communicating to increase safety,” Highsmith said, “and in the past we hadn’t been as clear about the federal law part of it.”

Two of the four e-mails sent out so far in 2009, however, have not contained the phrase. Highsmith said the switch was made to get people’s attention, noting that by now people should be aware of the federal standards.

“We don’t want it to be so formulaic that people don’t read it,” she said.

Even so, more than ten students interviewed said they do not even open the e-mails.

“I only look at them occasionally,” Matt Kremmer ’11 said, “and when I do it is only because of curiosity and not because they are useful.”

In the past year, Perrotti sent the majority of his e-mails between 8 and 10 a.m. The e-mails arrived an average of 8.5 hours after each crime had been committed.

Comments

  • Yalie for Campus Carry

    In order to increase campus safety, I immediately request that President Levin direct Chief Perrotti to provide for a system under which faculty and off-campus students who have met state requirements may carry their lawfully owned firearms for self-defense purposes on campus.

    It is ridiculous that law-abiding Yale students (especially we grad students, who typically live off-campus) are permitted by the State of Connecticut to bear concealed firearms throughout the State, but cannot set foot on Yale's campus with them.

    Don't even argue about "not feeling safe" and the straw-man of "increased likelihood of acts of passion by armed students" . . . EVERYTIME you go to Wal-Mart, or J. Crew, or Borders, to a gas station, you are very likely to be side-by-side with a law-abiding citizen who has chosen to go armed.

    http://concealedcampus.org/

  • law student

    how about emails when students get hit by a car?

    minh tran said at the aldermanic debate that at least one student has been killed each year since he started at yale. that is freaking ridiculous.

    yale people are very often hit by cars and seriously injured. the ydn doesn't cover it. a law student was practically killed in front of starbucks recently and it never made the paper. perrotti doesn't send out an email. so people have a false sense of security and a false perception of where the actual dangers lie.

  • Right

    Until he starts reporting descriptions of the attackers, these emails are pointless and will never lead to anyone getting apprehended. Oh wait, I forgot, at a "progressive" school like Yale, multiculturalism trumps personal safety.

  • P. '11

    Interesting that President Levin apparently intervened to reduce the impact of potentially negative publicity if the crime stats were to gain too much public attention.

  • Karen

    I read the emails and forward them to friends who do not receive them. It's helpful to know what's going on in our environs.

  • johnny durgeon

    I agree with the below commenter. If Perrotti and Highsmith were serious in apprehending the criminals, their most identifying characteristic, their RACE, would be stated. Instead, it's some ambiguous description like, "the criminal had a red hat and black jacket." Get over the PC crap! If you are serious about wanting to apprehend the thugs, tell us the race (be it white, asian, black, indian, etc.)! It would help narrow down the list of candidates if you could match it to the other items of description…

    Previous commenter:
    "Until he starts reporting descriptions of the attackers, these emails are pointless and will never lead to anyone getting apprehended. Oh wait, I forgot, at a "progressive" school like Yale, multiculturalism trumps personal safety."

  • confused

    can anybody explain to me why it never says the race of the assailant? other than sex, that is the most important description.

    how is including this "not pc"? acknowledging someone's race is politically incorrect? if so, do we value this more than safety?

  • P '11

    Again, it sounds from the story as though President Levin intervened in the process to insure that the reports would be as unprovocative as possible, tracking the minimum federal reporting requirements in a dry and boring fashion.

  • Anonymous

    It was interesting to me (and interesting when it showed up in my email box) how Perrotti has chosen exactly one acquaintance rape (i.e. student on student crime) to pass along, due to the possible "serial nature" of that particular incident. Why not a summary of the numbers of cases reported per year?

  • explanation

    Perrotti uses race on occassion but he was asked by students to not use race in his emails when doing so does not provide a helpful description of the suspect. This conversation occurred after he sent out an email a few years ago describing a suspect as a Black male in his late teens or early twenties (that was the only description given). I hope we can all agree that emails like that are not only useless, but they do more harm than good by labeling a large number of Yalies and New Haven residents as suspects. I hope there's no need to explain why that is a huge problem.

    Since then it seems like he has struggled to figure out when he should use race in his alerts - sending emails with the suspect's height, build, clothing, unique features like a scar and yet no race (which would have been helpful); as well as sending an email describing a suspect as a Black male wearing a Black coat and a beanie in December (not so helpful). I'm sure there are programs that offer training on these sorts of things and I hope that he seeks them out and attends.

  • Anonymous

    So there are programs that offer training in applied political correctness?

  • @10

    Respectfully, race *always* provides a helpful description of the suspect. It tells you what race the suspect is!

    "A black male wearing a black coat and a beanie" is not a very good description. But it's unarguably a better description than "a man wearing a black coat and a beanie."

    Are you saying the only options are to provide a complete and distinguishing description or to include no description at all?

    Although that seems a little ridiculous at first glance, I don't think I would mind a lack of descriptions. An incomplete description probably won't help the police apprehend a suspect, and there's some chance, however small, that it will lead to false identifications.

    But I don't think that this has anything to do with race. Political correctness be damned. If the available description is not efficacious, just don't include it.

  • Anonymous

    1.
    For the record: We all (including Explanation himself) can agree that E.'s begging a few questions at 10 and that he's speaking for Yale and New Haven people whom he doesn't represent. (And that I'm begging a question by speaking for you, E.)
    2.
    To E. (at 10 para. 1) and to Right, Durgeon, and Anon. (at 3, 6 & 11): Relevant in part to all of your comments?
    "REACTIONARY applies to wishes to return to an older outworn order … <both the Reformation and the Counter Reformation were reactionary>." Webster's 3d Int'l Dict. (2002).
    3.
    E.'s point (at 10 para. 2) about training programs is a helpful one. Here's the uniform, modernized, racially, ethnically, and politically correct lexicon used by most municipalities (including New Haven?) in nearly every Suspicious Person description listed in their police blotters:
    WN, WH, BN, AN, BH, AH, …
    The most common profile?
    WN, 17-19.
    -- An MIT Crime Club "Campus Crimestopper" award goes to the ethnically sensitive Eli who first deciphers the acronyms! --
    ~J.K. Herms

  • Anonymous

    Is the N for "non-Hispanic"? Because then the letters could all stand for White, non-Hispanic; White Hispanic; Black non-Hispanic; Asian non-Hispanic; Black Hispanic; and Asian Hispanic respectively.

  • hmmm

    13, you got me stumped, what does WN stand for?

  • apb

    Look down at the feet ( not in disgrace)
    but quickly get a description of the sneaks, they usually don't throw them away like a tee shirt

  • Anonymous

    In 2006, the Census Bureau began using this new (more correct?) set of terms for its six race+ethnicity categories:
    "non-Hispanic White" (formerly WN)
    "Hispanic"
    "non-Hispanic Black"
    "non-Hispanic Asian"
    "non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaskan Native"
    "non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander"
    U.S. Census Bureau, Accuracy of the Data p. 12 (2007), http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Downloads/ACS/accuracy2007.pdf

    Hispanics, the largest minority group, are underrepresented at every most-selective university other than MIT and Stanford. (Yale's a distant third.)

    Any Catholics in your admissions office? If not, is "PC" the right description?

    J.K. Herms
    MIT Crime Club

  • Race is not a factor

    I agree with #10 post: "by explanation"

    Not knowing the race keeps all of us vigilant and always aware of our surroundings- regardless of who the potential perp may be.

    Yes, race will help better apprehend a suspect if we were all crime-catching law-individuals, but instead we are just citizens trying to stay safe, and our anxious suspicions will only cause us to start looking at a certain race differently when we see them. It would be a common self-defense mechanism to be weary of all whites b/w 17 and 21 if that is the most common description given in the Perrotti reports.

    Heaven forbid an email goes out of a non-white suspect… that would only cause more harm then good for that sector of students. Yes, clothes can be discarded quickly (agree with #16- yes, tell us about the shoes!)…but, we are just being informed of the crimes- we are not be charged to apprehend the suspects- only report suspicious activity- on ALL individuals, regardless of race.

  • Anonymous

    To Race Is Not a Factor, at 18:
    "[...] we are just citizens trying to stay safe." So many interesting questions begged! :
    My (natural but rebuttable) presumption is that you're not one of the 420 Yalies in the highest risk category, namely, a nonresident alien.
    Think of the University from a global perspective: What if the wrong prince gets killed?
    Back to 1914???
    More empathy, please. For your OWN protection (and your property's), try identifying with the victims, and with the perpetrators too …
    … YOU are an 18-year old punk cruising the campus for a new bicycle. That one over there's been spray-painted already, flat blue. As a matter of professionalism, do you even contemplate stealing it?
    … You've pedaled home on someone else's new wheels -- and with a new wallet! While trolling the Web, do you bother checking out how you're being represented by the YPD? (In case you feel like going back?)
    _Cf._ Cheryl Vossmer, MIT Police Bulletins, http://web.mit.edu/cp/www/bulletins.htm
    Suspect Descriptions [1-6]:
    : male, light skinned [Black] ….
    : male, white, late teens to early twenties, 6' or taller, [noticeably thin] build. Suspect was wearing … black Saucony brand sneakers and was riding a bike.
    : four males, black, 20-25. All suspects were wearing black puffy jackets and black hats.
    : two males, black, 19-20, approximately 5'9" tall.
    : male, white, 18-20, 5'7" to 5'9", thin build, brown hair with front spiked up, brown eyes.
    : male, white, 30, 5'10", graying hair, … large tattoo on back of neck reading "IRISH"…. Suspect has a long history with MIT Police and knows the campus quite well.
    These from the least racist (selective) university as measured by enrollment of underrepresented minorities.
    (Note: Test scores aren't a factor in the equation. E.g., Yale has more Hispanics AND more non-Hispanic Blacks than Harvard; it also has higher SATs.) http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/default.aspx
    ~J.K. Herms
    MIT Crime Club

  • Anon

    I must agree with #18. As someone who used to work in law enforcement, I've seen first hand that there are very good reasons to not report race. Mostly reactionary morons who decide to play cop when they see a "likely suspect". If you're a professional trained in the recognition and apprehension of criminals then such identifying characteristics can be useful. Otherwise, as a citizen you should be careful of all people who fit the general description, regardless of whether they are a prior offender. Race is rarely a simple or useful system of categorization these days anyway. I'd say this set of comments alone justifies the decision.

    I too find the alerts useful, as someone who doesn't live in the more heavily protected part of the city. I forward them to other off-campus folks who do not get them otherwise as well.

    A general "police blotter" type column in the YDN might be a more representative solution?