YPD messages scrutinized

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This year, when Doug Streat ’16 was the victim of an assault that took place at the corner of York Street and Elm Street, no safety message was sent from Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins’s office to the University community. After two Yale Law School students were assaulted in East Rock Park, it took until three days after the second assault — and weeks after the first — for the YPD to notify students. Yet just six weeks into the 2014 calendar year, University students, faculty and staff have already received five messages from the YPD, alerting them to a series of crimes, one of which involved a non-Yale-affiliated female who was tased and robbed of her purse, several blocks beyond Pierson’s Park Street gate.

Though 69 Clery-reportable crimes, which include sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault, took place on campus in 2012, only 28 warning messages were sent from Higgins to the Yale community that year.

By now, most have become accustomed to the alerts, part of the University’s extensive infrastructure to keep its students informed and, more importantly, safe. But as December passed without news from the department, which had not released a timely warning message — email alerts detailing crimes that happen on or near University grounds — from Higgins since the Nov. 25 lockdown, some began to wonder about the implications of this recent wave of reports and the administrative criteria behind it.

“The chief and I evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, the information the Yale Police Department has received, what type of crime occurred, and what type of threat it might present,” Associate Vice President of Administration Janet Lindner said in an email.

The department is required to report timely information about “crimes considered to be a threat to other students and employees” according to the Clery Act, a federal law passed by George H.W. Bush ’48 in 1990 that pertains to security on college campuses.In cases of immediate importance, the YPD sends out emails as part of the Yale emergency alert system, which was last used in response to the campus shooting threats during November recess last fall.

Timely warnings, however, serve as the department’s most frequent means of communication with students — and typically take the form of an email from Higgins. The Clery Act requires information to be released 24 hours after the relevant crime, and the announcements are strictly dictated by the guidelines laid out by the act and in University policy, Higgins said.

“The communication is based on the Clery Act,” Higgins said. He added that the act lists the specific crimes that must be reported by campus police to students: murder, forcible and nonforcible sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft and manslaughter, in addition to liquor, drug and weapons-possession crimes.

Of 16 students interviewed, the majority expressed either indifference towards or approval of the YPD’s communication system.

Audrey Fernandez-Fraser DIV ’16 said she has noticed an uptick in Chief Higgins’s messages lately and that she sees them as helpful, if slightly opaque.

“I’m definitely glad that they let us know when stuff happens,” Fernandez-Fraser said. “I have no way of knowing if they’re letting us know about everything that happens or how they decide — I usually just assume that they’re keeping us informed about anything significant.”

Some, however, pointed to areas they wanted the department to address.

“I think they’re doing a pretty good job,” Serena Lau ’17 said, before adding that she would like to see timely warnings sent sooner after the crimes take place.

Though the timely warnings are required to be released within 24 hours, most of them, such as the latest message sent on Feb. 1 at 1:25 a.m., are delivered as quickly as 90 minutes later.

In these messages, Higgins provides the victim’s University affiliation and health condition, suspect description, incident location and investigation status. Timely warnings also include general safety tips and various phone numbers for the department’s many security resources, such as nighttime shuttle services.

Higgins also sends out public safety messages, often at the beginning of the University’s fall, spring and summer academic terms. These present a broader survey of crime around New Haven, pointing out recent trends and police activity.The YPD’s annual security report lists statistics for each reportable crime, also noting which incidents were considered hate crimes.

Furthermore, the report acknowledges an inherent discrepency between the figures it reports  for sexual crime and those provided in the Yale University Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct due to the University’s “more expansive definition of sexual assault and misconduct” in that document, according to the YPD’s annual security report.

Though the act holds specific standards,  university officials nationwide decide, to a degree, what ends up being reported. David Carlisle, a Deputy Chief at the University of Southern California’s Department of Public Safety, said that, though the Clery Act does not require university police to report crime in off-campus areas, he often feels compelled to do so in  spots frequented by students. USC is located in Los Angeles’ SouthCentral neighborhood, which, like New Haven, is a highly urban, historically crime-ridden area.

“If a robbery happens on the sidewalk in front of a USC building, the Clery Act mandates that we report it,” Carlisle said. “But it could happen a block away, in front of a private residence, and then it’s not required.”

Carlisle added that, because the Clery Act is such a complex piece of legislation, his department recently hired Mardi Walters, an expert on the act, in a consulting role to help with such projects as a streamlined timely warning system that will allow messages to be sent within an hour of the crime.

Other factors weigh into the decision to send a report as well. Over-reporting crime runs the risk of desensitizing people or creating “an atmosphere of fear,” as Carolyn Lee ’15 believes the YPD systems currently do. Higgins added that, should alerts — like the five in 2014 — come in quick succession of one other, it is because doing so is necessary both to keep the community aware and to comply with the Clery Act.

“We do hear from some people who feel we send too many messages, while others think we should let the campus know about every crime in New Haven,” Lindner said. “The goal is not to frighten anyone or to overload them with crime reports.”

Conversely, reporting too few incidents can result in backlash.

Following the two separate robbery-assaults at East Rock Park on Law School students, when no YPD announcement was made after the first attack, some students approached department officials for action. Higgins released a general public safety update on Oct. 4 — without discussing the initial incident — 15 days before the second attack took place in the same location. A timely warning was issued on Oct. 22, indicating that the New Haven Police Department had launched an investigation into the matter.

Though neither Carlisle nor Higgins said they could be sure about how seriously students at their respective school treat these messages, it is the police’s responsibility to keep their community as up-to-date as possible.

“Timely warnings are issued to provide members of our community with an opportunity to change their behavior or be mindful,” Higgins said. “We encourage people to read them — we’re sending them for a reason. I hope people adhere to our suggestions.”

The Clery Act was passed as a result of the 1986 on-campus rape and murder of Jeanne Clery, then a student at LeHigh University.

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