The old joke about Yalies getting shot while screwing in a lightbulb just doesn’t seem to apply anymore. The question is whether anyone has noticed.
The Yale Police Department released its annual crime report last week, and the numbers looked good: total crime down 14 percent. Larceny, the most common crime on campus, down a whopping 37 percent. Crime at Yale and in New Haven has been on a downward trend for 10 years now. The city’s community policing efforts have made it a safer place, a few high-profile crimes notwithstanding.
But ultimately the success or failure of Yale’s effort to increase security and combat crime will depend just as much on the image that the University and New Haven project as it depends on reality. Actually making the campus safer is only half of the battle for Yale, at the center of a city so long associated with violence and decay.
For all his department’s efforts, Yale Police Chief James Perrotti said Thursday he does not think the improvements in campus safety have necessarily changed perceptions at large.
“To put the tag on the city of New Haven now that it’s a violent city and you’re not safe here, I think is wrong,” Perrotti said.
Yale is hardly alone in its effort to fight inaccurate perceptions, said S. Daniel Carter, vice president of the college crime prevention organization Security on Campus.
“That’s still a myth that campuses in an urban environment are perhaps more dangerous themselves than campuses in a rural environment,” Carter said. “That is not necessarily so.”
Because urban colleges and universities often focus on security far more than others, the campuses themselves can actually be much safer.
Moreover, schools that are serious about fighting campus crime can be hurt by their own thoroughness if potential students and their parents only look at the data.
“A school that’s more honest may well look more dangerous than a school that’s less honest,” Carter said.
Security on Campus was founded by Howard and Connie Clery, whose daughter Jeanne was raped and murdered at Lehigh University in 1986. A federal law named for Jeanne Clery now requires colleges and universities across the country to report their crime statistics to the U.S. Department of Education, which puts the information on a Web page.
While Carter said he thinks having the statistics available is an important step and vital for keeping prospective students informed, just relying on the data can be misleading and dangerous.
Perrotti said the exact definition of “campus crime” by the Clery act can get confusing and that he’s seen e-mail debates on precisely what must be reported to the Department of Education.
The answer for prospective students concerned about campus safety, both Perrotti and Carter agreed, is to visit a college ahead of time, contact school administrators and safety officials, and read local newspapers.
“There’s a difference between awareness and the perception you’re in a dangerous area,” Perrotti said. “Awareness is good, but that perception is not right.”