What's behind security alerts?

An in-depth look into the University process

By Cairo Lewis | Produced by Forrest Sill | May 5, 2015

Marta Bakula/Chicago Maroon

Some University students and affiliates were shaken by the lagged posting of security alerts surrounding the Ross Jacobs’ attack on his roommate. Many reported first finding out through other news and social media outlets that the former University of Chicago student had stabbed his roommate at 3 a.m. on March 13 on the 5400 block of South Hyde Park Boulevard. A University security alert and update was issued the next day at 10:24 p.m.

However, the University and the UCPD have increased the number of security alerts by 59 percent compared to the seven-year average. The number of security alerts issued in 2014 was 17, roughly six more than the average number of alerts over the past seven years. The crime rate in Hyde Park, meanwhile, has decreased by 31 percent since 2009.

The violent crime rate from Hyde Park to the South Kenwood area has steadily decreased from 246 crimes in 2009 to 128 crimes in 2014—a 48 percent drop, according to the University of Chicago’s website. Areas within the UCPD jurisdiction—which includes Hyde Park, parts of Kenwood, and Woodlawn—also witnessed a decrease in crimes: 559 crimes in 2009 to 379 crimes in 2013, a 31 percent average change. However, as reported in a previous Maroon article, there has been a recent increase in crime rates in Hyde Park, with three people shot near campus in April.

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According to a statement released on Thursday, April 30 by Associate Vice President for Safety, Security and Civic Affairs and Chief of Police Marlon Lynch, there has been a 22 percent decrease in violent crime when compared with the previous five-year average throughout the University of Chicago Police Department’s (UCPD) patrol area.

Some students still believe that more security alerts should be sent out and should be timelier. In a study conducted by The Chicago Maroon, 86 respondents shared their input on how they believe security alerts should be issued. Of the students, faculty, and staff who responded, 37 percent believe that that security alerts provide adequate information about crime in Hyde Park. When asked about the safety of the campus, 46 percent of respondents believe that the alerts help people stay safe. 27 percent of respondents believe that security alerts are sent out in a timely manner.

More concerns indicated in the survey include a need for the UCPD to be more transparent with University students, faculty, and staff about crimes in the surrounding UCPD area: providing more details in regards to the location of the crime, what happened, the suspect’s appearance in alerts, and possibly sending these alerts to the rest of the Hyde Park community.

“I think that more security alerts should be sent out, especially if there are violent suspects at large around campus, even their crimes don’t involve university affiliated people. And while I do think that incident reports ought to come out as soon as possible, I also think that this needs to be balanced with accuracy and diligence in putting together the information they contain,” second-year Daniel Meagher said.

The University’s current objective is to send timely messages “to give members of the campus community information that will allow them to adjust their behavior to protect their personal safety.”

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University Communications Assistant Marielle Sainvilus said, “As soon as an incident that meets the criteria for consideration of an alert is reported, regardless of the time of day, there is an immediate conversation between members of University Communications, Campus and Student Life, and the UCPD. The team then follows the University’s Guidelines for Immediate security alerts, which are publicly available on the University’s website to determine whether or not to issue a security alert.”

As of July 15, 2014, the University and the UCPD have revised their policy to include the race of a suspect if UCPD decides that it is relevant. Lynch said race will be included if there is additional information, such as a tattoo or other noticeable body differences. Previously, race has been included in a number of security alerts, but not consistently.

Including race in the security alerts has also been a concern for students. “I wish that they provided more identifying information about perpetrators than ‘young adult black male.’ This is not enough information to correctly identify someone, but it is just enough to make being a young adult black male UChicago student difficult. I'm not saying they should take out the racial information if it is true, but they should provide more information if UCPD truly intends to give us enough information to find a suspect,” second-year Daphne McKee said.

Lynch said that there are strict guidelines about what to include in security alerts. Complete security alerts usually include the date, time, a description of the incident, and other information that may help find suspects. In the case where there is an arrest or if there is a risk of compromising law enforcement efforts, an alert does not have to be sent out. Any untimely alerts may be included in a security alert the next day or posted on the University's Community Safety website.

Crimes in accordance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (“Clery Act”) are sent out in security alerts. Clery Act crimes include: stalking, hate crimes, domestic violence, aggravated assault, dating violence, arson, burglary, motor vehicle theft, murder and non-negligent manslaughter, negligent manslaughter, robbery, and both forcible and non-forcible sex offenses. Clery Act jurisdiction surrounds campus and non-campus buildings or property and public property.

The University also issues timely security alerts in certain circumstances when non–Clery Act crimes occur and/or when crimes occur outside of Clery Act geography but within the UCPD’s jurisdiction, which extends from East 37th to East 64th Streets and South Cottage Grove Avenue to South Lake Shore Drive, and have the potential to threaten the campus and its surrounding community.

Examples of circumstances that would require the University to send out a security alert include, but are not limited to, any violent crime that occurs within UCPD service area, any crimes involving children (and if the crime occurs near a school), whether an individual is killed due to violence in the UCPD service area, and whether a pattern can be established if a trail of crimes has been committed within a short timespan.

In terms of transparency and communication, Lynch said that he and University officials including University Communications, Campus and Student Life, members of Student Government, and the UCPD hold meetings every school year to discuss ways to improve alerts and to make frequent changes.

“The Security Alert policy is also reviewed on an as needed basis in certain situations. Last year, there was an as needed review which prompted minor changes to clarify language related to incidents which occur close to an off-campus residence hall, to assure compliance,” said Assistant Vice President and Assistant Chief of Police Services Gloria Graham.