Revising the report

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Like any police force, Brown’s Department of Public Safety is empowered by the state to enforce the law, and, as of January, DPS officers carry guns. When it comes to releasing information, however, the University invokes its prerogative as a private institution. DPS does not release police reports, unlike municipal police departments. A federal law called the Clery Act, however, does impose a few narrow obligations: DPS must maintain a public crime log and release an annual report of crime statistics. The annual report is virtually the only means by which community members can assess crime in Brown’s semi-urban location. That is why it’s troubling that DPS has had to revise a major figure on its 2005 report, which was distributed in September, to adjust the number of on-campus sexual assaults from zero to four.

Dean for Student Life Margaret Klawunn told The Herald that sexual assault data compiled by the Office of Student Life were never sent to DPS because of an “administrative error.” On the other side of the equation, DPS did not offer much of an explanation for publishing its crime report without inquiring why the OSL numbers never arrived: “It is important to remember that we process 1,600 cases a year,” said Chief of Police Mark Porter. While administrators rightly admitted their errors, this latest incident fits into a pattern of inconsistency and confusion in Brown’s crime reporting.

Last October, for example, DPS sent out a campus-wide crime alert 23 hours after a student was robbed at gunpoint on Williams Street, despite a Clery Act requirement that a “timely warning” be provided when there is an ongoing threat. Last spring, The Herald reported on hard-to-explain discrepancies between DPS and Providence Police Department crime reporting on the East Side. And, in the latest crime report, there is more than one eyebrow-raising figure: nine OSL referrals were given for drug policy violations in 2005, compared to eight in 2004 and 108 in 2003. Porter would not comment on the precipitous drop for an Oct. 16 article. Perhaps more disturbing, the sexual assaults figure would likely never have been revised if not for Herald articles that prompted a review of the number.

Unfortunately, there is little oversight of Clery Act compliance, and even less community members can do to ensure DPS is reporting campus crime fully and accurately. The latest error calls into question the reliability not only of DPS’s crime reports, but also the incident summaries that appear in The Herald each week. To begin to restore the credibility that DPS sorely needs, the University should launch a full review of the 2005 crime report and crime reporting standards at Brown.