Carnegie Mellon Police host forum on the inclusion of race in crime alerts

Last Monday, Carnegie Mellon’s vice president for operations, Rodney P. McClendon, and the Carnegie Mellon police department hosted a discussion forum on the content of campus alerts. The discussion focused specifically on whether race should be included in the suspect description of Carnegie Mellon’s crime and safety alerts.

Carnegie Mellon crime alerts get sent out when some crimes occur on campus, or when crimes directly target individuals affiliated with the university. A safety alert is for crimes that occur off-campus where Carnegie Mellon students may live. The content of these alerts includes the location and time, a description of the crime, a description of the suspect, and a general warning of precaution.

In 2016, the Carnegie Mellon police department removed the race of the suspect from descriptions, following feedback from faculty and students. However, by 2018, the move received pushback from some members of the community, who requested the policy be reverted. That pushback prompted last week’s forum.

David Touretzky, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, spoke against the decision to remove race descriptions, citing transparency and safety as his primary concerns. In his remarks, he described how some crime alerts cite the color of a car that was used in a crime, but not the color of the person, a policy that he found “silly.”

He also compared the police report of one crime to the crime alert released shortly after, noting that the police report maintains the race of the suspect. “Does CMU want to catch this guy or not?” he posed to the audience.

From his point of view, he saw the removal of race descriptions as sending a message that the Carnegie Mellon community “can’t handle the truth about race...can’t handle the information responsibly” and that the community “is not entitled to the truth.”

In his remarks, Carnegie Mellon Police Chief Thomas Ogden made key distinctions concerning the policy. He stressed that crime and safety alerts are only meant to inform the community about a crime, where it happened, and to take precautions. “In my 41 years of law enforcement experience, we haven’t caught anyone, in my experience, based on a crime alert or a community alert.” In a follow-up comment with The Tartan, he said that the alerts do not function as a tip line either.

Another distinction Ogden made is the unreliability of witness accounts. “Statistically speaking, eyewitness identification most of the time is not accurate because the people providing it were in the heat of the moment.” He acknowledged that there is confusion over the crime alert policies, as there is no national or local consistency regarding racial descriptions of suspects.

Once the floor was opened to the audience for discussion, the overwhelming majority of the speakers spoke in favor of continuing the 2016 policy, with some advocating to remove suspect descriptions entirely.
The majority of the focus from the speakers, ranging from students to Carnegie Mellon professors, focused on the impact that including racial descriptions has on profiling.

One graduate student, who has been at Carnegie Mellon since 2013, quoted past examples of crime alerts that included racial descriptions. When the suspects were black, she said, black students on campus would “joke all the time like ‘Have you seen the crime alert? It was you this time wasn’t it?’ Because it all sounded like us.”