October 11, 2023

GLASGOW | Crime Reports Should Always Have Race Descriptions

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You could go back to any time period and narrow in on the same conclusion: The people are living in uncertain and dangerous times. The COVID-19 pandemic has left us questioning our safety more than ever; violent crimes continue to remain elevated compared to 2019. In analyzing crime in the context of college campuses, there can be immeasurable effects in battling crime in the nation and the world as a whole.

A contentious 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled “More than 1 in 5 female undergrads at top schools suffer sexual attacks” analyzed responses from AAU annual climate survey on sexual assault and misconduct. It had found a correlation between top schools and sexual assault. Similarly, Professors Wiersma-Mosley and Jozkowski published an indelible 2019 report concerning Sexual Violence among Universities with the NCAA Division I Athletic programs in the National Library of Medicine. Their findings, while expansive, had found that “Ivy League universities reported a significantly higher number of rape” and stalking as compared to all other conferences in their experimental football subdivision. 

The nation’s top schools cannot escape from the most vile aspects of human life. Even at Cornell, tucked away from the violence of cities and a school consistently ranked safer than most of its Ivy League counterparts, even in studies done by other Ivies, things can happen that bring people back into the real world.

A campus crime alert was sent out on Sept. 14 and detailed a rape that had occurred on campus. The suspect was described as a male, six feet tall and weighing approximately 160 pounds. The Cornell family, having all received this message, had immediately spiraled into understandable concern and questioning, especially given the rarity of such a heinous crime alert. From parent Facebook groups, to the students, questions arose as to the identity of the assailant. While the case has officially been closed by the Cornell University Police Department, one is left questioning the extent to which we identify criminals before they are caught.

In conversations concerning suspect identification and crime it is important to get the elephant out of the room: Black people. There is near uniform agreement that Black people are overrepresented among persons arrested for nonfatal violent crimes and for serious nonfatal violent crimes relative to Black representation in the US population; the reasons as to why are, however, debated. 

Minorities, given their experiences of being outsiders (easy scapegoats), may find similarities and bonding factors across a wide spectrum. Nevertheless, the American Black experience is unique in its troubles. Given the immediate factor of institutionalized slavery, segregation, redlining and the contemporary consequences associated with those evils, there is a shared trauma in how Black Americans specifically respond to crime alerts. There is no young Black man in the nation that watches the news and doesn’t pray that the suspect isn’t Black before a full description is given. This is why, in questioning how we provide descriptions in college crime alerts, we prod into the fabric of the nation, and we must prod carefully.

The Cornell University Police Department (CUPD), being one of the largest players in anything crime related on campus, would be the logical first chain of communication. 

After contacting CUPD Communications, The following response can be attributed to Eric Stickel, Deputy Chief of the Cornell University Police Department:

“The Clery Act requires that we share information about certain crimes in a timely manner after an incident is reported. In this instance, we alerted the community with the details we had at the time. As new information came in, we edited the CrimeAlert.”

Cornell University’s Police Department, founded in 2020, works tirelessly to keep the campus safe; but questioning the extent to which we identify suspects in college crime alerts, requires very specialized studies that go beyond the guidelines offered by the University.

Professor Naomi Fa-Kaji of Stanford and Professors Shannon Cheng and Mikki Hebl of Rice published a 2019 study called “The Impact of Suspect Description in University Crime Reports on Racial Bias”. The archival study examined the frequency of reporting suspect race and the relationship between the racial identification of the subject and the likelihood that the suspect was caught. The second experimental study examined how race reporting can affect overt and subtle racial attitudes. The study’s conclusion was that there was “no significant relationship between racial identification and…the level of detail in a suspect description or the likelihood that the suspect was caught.” The second study “demonstrated increased overt and subtle actual bias towards Black people” among participants who read a report with a Black suspect compared to participants who saw a subject with no description.

I have many problems with this study, but I’m not the only one. Professor Vincent Egan of the University of Nottingham, Professor Maria Viskaduraki of the University of Leicester and researcher Nicola Gilzeane of the NHS Health Research Authority had written a 2013 study titled Strategic race blindness: not so black and white?, a work that continues to be cited to this day. The study concluded that purposefully avoiding mention of a suspect’s ethnicity can potentially hinder eyewitness testimony and consequently hinder police investigations.

The prejudice that exists in this country will continue presenting itself, regardless of the context, if the origin of the problem is not solved. Studies have consistently shown that Black people earn the least in tips across the board; does banning tipping solve institutional racism? Women may be more likely to feel immediate caution when approached by a man at night; does the potential for bias against men mean that we have to remove sex descriptions in crime reports? A mass increase in “subtle and overt racial bias” after looking at a Black suspect description could mean a problem with society and its perceptions rather than the system of reporting. 

Removing racial descriptions in crime alerts results in exerting even more prejudice, because it covers up the real problems facing the Black community: the interconnectedness between historical institutionalized racism, poverty and how crime connects to both. Everyone is entitled to live a life of dignity and have the potential for success: Under the status quo, this is simply unachievable for so many Black Americans — and the policy intended for Black communities only makes a mockery of these problems. We cannot feel our way through life, we have to have honest conversations that don’t shy away from difficult topics. 

“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black” said President Joe Biden; that’s what it all reminds me of. Or when Georgia’s Election Integrity Act passed, expanding voting numbers to unprecedented levels, and numerous democratic voices like Elizabeth Warren irresponsibly threw around the term Jim Crow. It’s not just Biden and the Left, the Western world in general loves the exploitation of race as a means to seem more inclusive — it’s our obsession with virtue signaling.

Gun violence alone reduces the life expectancy of Black Americans by four years; as someone from Queens, who understands a thing or two about American urban environments, I express the obvious fact that many of these guns are illegal. When billions are spent to send electric school buses to the Bronx and we haven’t got charging stations, you wonder who seeks to benefit from policy. The White House was built by slaves, and many of the problems we face as a nation continue to be trickles left behind by the Civil War and reconstruction. The resounding idea being that one policy will not solve all of our problems; this idea is uncontroversial until it touches precisely the realm of anything remotely racially sensitive. I mean to highlight the discrepancy between on the ground issues and the help provided for them.

There need to be race descriptions in crime reports; not only because it assists in police investigations, but also because not doing so teaches society to be pacified with ineffective, inauthentic policy and complacent with a continuation of systemic problems without seeking practical solutions. If the information available to us is condensed to height and weight, then there is no sense in releasing a suspect description at all — it desensitizes people to crime because it removes their ability to help and decreases the weight of alerts that should be important, all while still keeping them fearful: complete stagnation. There is a dangerous trend of acceptance, the proliferation of social media has made people afraid of being labeled prejudiced. It’s in our DNA, right down to medieval humiliation in town squares. Take in the chance to be an outsider: Question and be critical of policy — who stands to benefit from them and how.

“Racially sensitive” shouldn’t mean not being able to say the word Black, it should mean simple decision making that clearly comes from insiders; it should mean engaging in the critical first step of confronting problems, not running away from them. Just three hours of funded after-school programs are enough to change a nation; Johnny is immediately less likely to run off to older friends when school ends at 2:45 and is less likely to enter into the headspace of drugs and organized crime that’s already all around him. It’s just a simple idea at the end of an article, but it’s more than anything done for minorities in this country in decades.

Leo Glasgow is a second year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. His fortnightly column Can We Talk focuses on student life, domestic and international politics and social issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

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