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VCU Removes Suspect Descriptions from Email Crime Alerts

June 28, 2016 | Virginia News

News Image The change was made to deter the development of negative racial stereotypes.

By Corey Byers, PIO, VCU Police Department

Just as other colleges and universities have struggled with balancing the issue of using racial descriptors in timely warnings (crime alerts), Virginia Commonwealth University has been no different, until now.

After working with VCU’s Wilder School of Government to conduct VCU-specific research on the topic, VCU Police Chief John Venuti believes he has found a balance between providing timely information on crimes and reducing the negative stereotypes against certain groups of individuals.

Starting this spring, the university’s police and public affairs staff are no longer including a racial descriptor of suspects in timely warnings (crime alerts) delivered via e-mail. While a full description will still be posted to the university’s public safety page, alert.vcu.edu, emails will instead have a hyperlink to the site with the following notation: For a full description of the suspect/s visit alert.vcu.edu.

“At VCU, the community’s safety is of paramount importance,” Venuti says. “There could be situations which pose a significant risk to public safety in which racial inclusion – and all other available descriptors – would be critically important for community members to be aware of so they could take personal safety measures.”

As a matter of practice, VCU police leaders issue text message alerts for incidents that are active, life-threatening and require immediate action by people on either of VCU’s Richmond campuses.

Subsequent case information is routinely posted on alert.vcu.edu. Police issue follow-up e-mails for more serious crimes, but there is typically a delay in email distribution due to the volume of more than 50,000 emails filtering through VCU’s email system.

Using a hyperlink notation in lieu of a full description was one of the main recommendations that emerged from a report by Dr. William Pelfrey Jr. in the Wilder School. Pelfrey was the principal investigator for a January 2016 mixed method report, “Examining the Role of Demographics in Campus Crime Alerts – Implications and Recommendations for the VCU Police Department.”

Venuti requested the research following years of conversations with students, faculty and staff members about suspect descriptions in crime alerts.

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In a May 2014 study by Mark L. Johnson (a criminal justice graduate student), VCU was benchmarked with 30 other institutions of higher education, all of which included race in timely warnings (crime alerts). Johnson found VCU’s practice of including racial descriptors was not only justified, but an accepted practice nationwide that met requirements. All of the examples of timely warnings in a Department of Education handbook include race as a descriptor.

As conversations with historically underrepresented groups continued, however, Venuti wanted to consider alternative modes in presenting racial descriptors. He sought a better way to include a description without traditional verbiage such as, “white, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.”

His first idea for Pelfrey was to consider how to use three skin color descriptions, “light, medium and dark.” It was quickly determined that those three descriptors could be highly subjective based on witness reports.

Pelfrey then conducted the mixed method research project, which combined a review of crime alerts issued during a four-year period. He also compiled detailed feedback from focus groups.

Focus group participants at VCU included students in VCU’s Black Graduate Student Association, the VCU NAACP student chapter, VCU student Criminal Justice Association, criminal justice graduate students, faculty and staff members, and subject matter experts who study the intersection of race and criminal justice.

Pelfrey found email timely warnings (crime alerts) were issued for violent crimes such as robbery, armed robbery, and aggravated assault. “Perpetrators are overwhelmingly male and largely black,” Pelfrey’s research found. “It is reasonable to question whether repeated descriptions of crime acts committed by black males could raise, foster or enhance a negative stereotype.”

For years, VCU Police had already started relying on detailed clothing descriptions and getaway vehicle descriptions (if applicable), but Venuti wanted to determine if police were perpetuating negative stereotypes.

While focus groups understood the need for crime alerts, most participants felt that including race could perpetuate a negative perception of minorities, specifically black males. They advised that race be excluded in cases which are several hours old and no longer present a pressing public safety concern. While this issue was a concern for most groups, all of the groups concluded that safety was predominantly the most important concern.

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Once Venuti received the final research results, he consulted with VCU’s public affairs office, VCU’s Black Education Association, police leadership, and university leadership. Since police and public affairs staff already use pre-written templates for email alerts, inserting a hyperlink to alert.vcu.edu was a simple update to include in the message.

Venuti believes this revised approach will fulfill dual goals of informing the community on public safety issues and reducing negative stereotypes that influence students, faculty and staff.

“The Department of Education provides very little guidance to intuitions regarding timely warning notifications,” Venuti says. “Balancing the needs of the entire community while doing what is in the best interest of safety is always a difficult task. I think this adjustment in emails will move VCU forward in its own discussions of diversity and inclusion, while still keeping timely warning details available to the public.”