The suspect was a black male, approximately 5’5″, 140 lbs., wearing a gray baggy jacket and jeans.”
Does that description sound familiar? If you attend or are employed by GW, it is likely that you have read a similar description countless times in the University Police Department’s “Crime Alert” e-mails. At GW, we have become so accustomed to reading these messages – and seeing the words “black male” – that we seldom even contemplate the described situation. We simply skim the e-mail, cringe at the idea of being robbed, and then continue to go about our business. Such ambiguous, generic descriptions do not sufficiently contribute to preventing crime on campus and have the damaging effect of perpetuating an unfavorable view of black men.
UPD’s reason for producing Crime Alerts is undoubtedly well-intentioned. The messages serve a range of ostensible purposes, including keeping students abreast of activity on campus, informing them of precautionary measures to take while walking around at night, and providing descriptions of criminals as a means toward tracking down the perpetrator and/or having students be aware of such individuals who might be roaming in the area. But although it is helpful to be aware of criminal activity on campus, the recent descriptions of criminals neither prevent future crime nor assist in finding the at-large individual.
Crime Alerts have an adverse effect by disseminating unhelpful information that fuels a fear of black men. The characteristics the e-mails explicate can be applied to a huge number of individuals – and often to many black males who are on campus. Telling students and employees that an individual has a particular skin color, is of a certain height and weight and is wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, is as helpful as a restaurant providing a menu with no options. That is, if a restaurant provided a menu that only listed broad food categories such as “chicken,” “meat,” etc., and no specific dishes – one could not be expected to make an informed selection. The comparison might sound frivolous, but similarly, when provided with broad descriptions of culprits, we are left with generalized, inconclusive information that does not allow us to stay clear of suspects or be any safer.
Moreover, providing vague descriptions has the unintended consequence of instilling the association between black men and crime in the minds of many who read the e-mails. This is not to say we are racists and consciously judgmental of black men, but rather it is a fair recognition of how the human mind works; seeing “black male” in most of the alerts perpetuates a mentality that society should be cognizant of black men on the street and that we should “be on the lookout” for such individuals. We are living in a society that is more racially tolerant and equal than ever before. But, intolerance, inequality and prejudices are far from eradicated from our lives, and any action – such as the criminal descriptions – that has the effect of stigmatizing all black men is antithetical to our goals of racial progress.
UPD is obligated to comply with the Clery Act, which stipulates that the institution “shall make… reports to the campus community… in a manner that is timely and that will aid in the prevention of similar occurrences.” The descriptions typically provided in the Crime Alerts we see are so general they cannot be expected to aid in the prevention of similar crimes. The act extends discretionary authority to UPD for them to formulate their own criteria for a Crime Alert message. In other words, UPD is not legally obliged to provide suspect descriptions in the alerts; they do so at their own prerogative. UPD should exercise such discretion and not utilize descriptions that lack enough detail to reasonably be expected to keep us safer.
I have nothing but appreciation and admiration for the vigilance and work of UPD. But sending Crime Alerts in their current form does not augment combating crime and making campus safer. I recognize that suspect descriptions are synonymous with police work and we would be wrong to fully do away with them. But when a policy does not further its objective – which in this case is the safety and education of GW’s populous – then the policy should be discontinued. I urge UPD to put an end to the unconstructive and detrimental practice of using such broad descriptions of perpetrators.
The writer is a sophomore majoring in political science.
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This article appeared in the February 12, 2010 issue of the Hatchet.