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University News

Race, ethnicity no longer used in DPS crime alerts

Change in Department of Public Safety practice follows student calls for policy change

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Following student protests, the Department of Public Safety has changed its practice of including the suspect’s race in crime alert emails.

The Department of Public Safety has altered its policy on racial descriptions for crime alerts over the past year, excluding suspects’ race in every campus alert since October 2015.

In an email to The Herald, Chief of Police Mark Porter and Deputy Chief of Police Paul Shanley maintained that this does not constitute a policy change, though nearly all publicly available crime alerts before that date mention a suspect’s race to some degree.

“We have no formal Department of Public Safety policy in place that either prohibits the inclusion of race or mandates that race be included in suspect descriptions,” Porter and Shanley wrote. As a matter of practice, the department includes the categorization only when there is certainty with regard to race or if it “adds value as part of a complete and thorough description” of a suspect, they added.

With race excluded, notifications typically include a suspect’s gender, age, build and general appearance.

Using a suspect’s race in a crime alert may be unnecessary for a number of reasons, including possible confusion in racial identification and the fact that “vague descriptions can reinforce stereotypes,” Porter and Shanley wrote. These stereotypes can foster hostility toward some members of the community, they added.

Several students called for the exclusion of race in DPS reports during negotiations surrounding the Diversity Inclusion Action Plan last year. In addition, race has proven problematic as an identifier in several instances at schools across the country — most notably at Yale, where a black student was forced to the ground at gunpoint for “fit(ting) the description of a suspect” mentioned in a campus alert in January 2015, the Yale Daily News reported.

“When talking about active searches for suspects, then I think anyone would agree that any superficial categorization is necessary,” said Stefano Bloch, a presidential diversity research associate in urban studies. “But the fact is in most cases race is not a practical category of identification … long after a crime has occurred,” he added, noting studies showing that victims are often unable to completely identify suspects in situations of duress.

It is important to consider the department’s motivation in excluding race, Bloch said, as this shift could either be seen as a heightened awareness of racial bias at an institutional level or “an attempt by an institution to appear colorblind regardless of the (racially biased) policies” that remain in place. “If removing racial identifiers is akin to the perpetuation of a colorblind society then it serves no purpose other than to pacify the Brown community,” he added.

While they stressed that crime alert practices have not been influenced by any specific instances, Porter and Shanley wrote that the department has “certainly heard from students over the years” who have raised concerns about the possibility of misplaced suspicion resulting from racial descriptions in community crime alerts.

Harjasleen Malvai ’17.5 said she supports the change because it shows a willingness on the part of DPS to listen to student demands. “If they have responded to this, there’s a lot more potential for them to be open to requests from Brown students in the future,” she said.

Iván Hofman ’19 said he was also optimistic about the possibility of reform but added that DPS “should do all that is needed so that race and other factors that stigmatize specific communities are taken into consideration.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, expressed uncertainty about the perceived policy change.

“Racial profiling is certainly a very legitimate issue for a campus to be concerned about,” Brown said. “But if the point of these reports is to help identify suspects, I’m not sure it makes much sense to exclude race from the description.”

Though race is now rarely included in crime alerts, DPS still makes note of racial categorizations internally, Shanley wrote. Due to this, Bloch said, withholding racial information from the community may not actually be as impactful because “it is the police in fact whose profiling has more deadly consequences than that of the general public.”

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  1. They should also drop gender from the description as there is a possibility of gender identity confusion and failing to do so can reinforce stereotypes.

  2. Medium_vs_Pretty_Huge says:

    As far as I can tell, this just means what’s released to the public won’t mention race. DPS would still use race internally when communicating about suspects. So I don’t really see how this will change actual policing. If anything it would probably be easier to justify harassing black kids that “look suspicious.”

    • So if you are a student, and you hear there has been a rash of muggings by what appears to be the same group, the Brown police feel it is safer for students to not know the race of the group doing the mugging, I think this will increase paranoia on campus, now everyone will be a suspect. If the group of muggers is white, people will probably automatically think they are black anyway given the crime stats.

  3. Sal Sutcliffe says:

    They should take race out of admissions, too

  4. “vague descriptions can reinforce stereotypes,” …. Huh?

    How about: “racial descriptions can improve criminal apprehension.” Does anyone out there care about the victims ?

  5. I”m sure this is going to open the floodgates to more white crime. Now the campus police will be in hot pursuit of black folk while the Caucasians are running rampant.

  6. Certified Owl here. Physical differences are natural. Why make it an issue? By your logic, you should also drop size/build from the description because that may trigger fat people.

  7. Leaving out race and ethnicity might make more accurate descriptions as witnesses would concentrate on saying what the features looked like instead of just relying on what they assume. For example, saying a person has”light brown complexion with short, black, straight hair, round face with thin lips” may be better than someone saying “Hispanic male” because the person may assume that the person is Hispanic when he is actually some other ethnicity, such as Italian or Arabic. Descriptions should concentrate on what is observed, not what is assumed.

    • Do you know they’re still going to include skin color or are you just grasping for some way to defend this? Pretty hard to keep skin color in and still accomplish what they are trying to do. “suspect has black skin…err but we don’t mean he’s black”

  8. BOLO for some carbon based life form, OK?

  9. If I was the chief, I wouldn’t give any type of description. Example, if a filthy animal robbed someone and was wearing a NY Giants jersey I would not report that because it would be mean to the NFL. Another example, say that same filthy animal also had blond hair. Would not report because it may offend dumb blond women. That’s it for now. I’m going to my safe space.

  10. This is scary. This is straight Orwellian. It isn’t “race” or “ethnicity” that was used in the first place – it was physics. Light waves travel and your eyes see them as visible light across a spectrum of colors.

  11. From Mark Porters welcome “We are committed to providing the highest level of professional police and public safety services to foster a safe learning and working environment for all.” I wonder if this move by Brown is in accordance with “The highest level of professional police and public safety services” I am interested in finding out if this is becoming standard police practice.
    Also, don’t use race when it points out a negative, the truth is hurtful. Do use race if it helps you get into Brown, the truth is helpful.

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