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Suspects’ race dropped from some campus crime alerts

Descriptions limited to race offend students, do little to help track down suspects
University Business, April 2015
University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota have eliminated race from some suspect descriptions in crime alerts.
University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota have eliminated race from some suspect descriptions in crime alerts.

Race has been eliminated from some suspect descriptions included in crime alerts sent out by two major public universities.

University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities made the change after minorities on campus raised concerns about profiling. Police agreed that descriptions limited to race did little to help track down suspects.

“It certainly doesn’t help students act as the eyes and ears of police if we’ve put out information they find offensive and view with disgust and disdain,” says University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell.

Maryland instituted its policy two years ago and Minnesota followed suit this February. Maryland sends email and text alerts to about 60,000 people after a serious crime has occurred. Race or ethnicity is not included in the suspect’s description if it is the only characteristic provided by a crime victim or witness.

Race, however, is noted if police have received an extensive description that also includes a suspect’s height and weight, and specific details about facial hair, clothing or weapons, Mitchell says.

Black students and faculty at Maryland said others on campus viewed them suspiciously when alerts urged people, for example, to be on the lookout for an African-American male.

At Minnesota, police will not include race when limited descriptions of suspects are available.

“The use of race in suspect descriptions in our crime alerts may unintentionally reinforce racist stereotypes of black men, and other people of color, as criminals and threats,” President Eric Kaler and Pamela Wheelock, vice president for University Services, wrote in an email to the university. “That in turn can create an oppressive climate for some members of our community, a climate of suspicion and hostility.”

At Maryland, the policy change also has improved the relationship between police and students. One indicator is that police have received more calls about suspicious persons, Mitchell says.

According to an FAQ on Minnesota’s Safe U website, an internal review of other institutions found race is used as a descriptor in crime alerts at 13 of 14 Big Ten institutions—with it being used on a case-by-case basis at Northwestern, Rutgers and Maryland.

Minnesota’s review of eight colleges and universities in the Twin Cities found race or complexion was included in all alerts.

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