When Yale releases its annual safety report, we trust that its statistics give an accurate picture of campus crime. They don’t.
The crimes that receive the most publicity, thanks to the emails of Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins, are street robberies and the occasional shooting. That’s as it should be — those crimes threaten our physical well-being as well as our property. But while they are dangerous, they’re not exactly a plague on our campus. There were only 14 robberies last year. The crime that is far more common, as too many students know from personal experience, is theft. There are hundreds of thefts on campus each year. How many exactly? Well, that’s where the trouble starts.
There are two types of thefts: larcenies and burglaries. A burglary involves illegal entry. Otherwise, the crime is categorized as a larceny. Why does this matter? Because in its annual report to the federal government (and de facto to us), Yale has to report the number of burglaries on campus each year — but not the number of larcenies. This is deeply problematic. There were 51 burglaries at Yale in 2010. There were 241 larcenies — making it the single largest category of University crime.
Except it’s not a category. Larceny is nowhere to be found on Yale’s annual safety report. I only found out the larceny statistics by directly asking the Yale administration through one of the News’ reporters. That’s not an option for most Yalies. If the number of larcenies were to triple next year, the University would not need to inform us. We would just notice that more of our stuff was missing.
This statistical funny business insulates the University from accountability. Take for example the recent string of thefts in Davenport College. In the YPD’s Daily Crime Log, the crimes are called thefts, leaving open the question of whether they were burglaries or larcenies. Police are trying to determine whether those responsible had the right to be in the area where they committed the crimes. If they did, which appears likely, the Davenport thefts will be called larcenies and excluded from the official crime record by which we judge Yale’s safety.
Yale’s administrators and police officials should ask the victims of the thefts how they feel about that. One I talked to was none too pleased. In late September, Danielle Wiggins ’12 had her Macbook stolen out of her backpack in the Davenport library. When she called the police to report the theft, Wiggins was stunned to hear the officer say there had already been about 30 Macbook thefts this school year. “If I had known that, I would have been more careful,” Wiggins told me. “We should be told” about larcenies, she said.
And it’s easier than ever before for Yale to call crimes larcenies and not report them. The University has to report crimes because of a 1990 law mandating that every college make public its yearly crime statistics and report them to the Department of Education. In 2005, a federal handbook about the Act recommended that, when in doubt, schools should default to the burglary definition. But in 2009, that recommendation was reversed: now campus police must find explicit evidence of illegal entry to call something a burglary.
The officers and detectives of the YPD are true professionals — but no one is immune to institutional and public pressures, or the lack of them. The statistical black hole that larcenies fall into means that the reputations of Yale and the YPD take less of a hit for a spike in larcenies than for one in other crimes. It would be natural for an organization to respond to such incentives and prioritize efforts against officially counted crimes. And, unfortunately, the current system incentivizes and would make it all too easy for a weak-willed officer to try to overlook evidence of illegal entry and make larcenies out of burglaries to falsely boost Yale’s crime stats.
It is really in the YPD’s interest to be more transparent about larcenies, because the YPD has not succumbed to the temptations the current system presents. In 2010, burglaries and larcenies both decreased (the latter by 21 percent), indicating that officers are not just playing with definitions. But again, I only know this because I asked.
The good news is that there is a simple fix for all this: Yale should simply report larcenies as a crime category in its annual report. Asked why Yale doesn’t already do this, University spokesman Tom Conroy said that Yale is content to follow the law. He said in an email that the federal reporting act “specifies the crimes required for inclusion in the annual report and we comply with the requirements.” Well, bully for you. So much for going the extra mile. Thankfully though, I checked in advance for Yale to make sure bonus efforts would not be a problem.
“We think it is fine for institutions to disclose more than is reported to [the Department of Education],” department spokeswoman Sara Gast said in an email.
So you’re all clear, Yale. Share the full crime numbers with us. Then we’ll know when to thank the YPD for a job well done and when to hold it accountable for subpar performance — and, all the while, not feel that someone’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes.