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.
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.