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New stats show campus crime dropped in 2009

Zero arrests for drugs or alcohol

There were zero arrests on campus for drug or alcohol crimes in 2009, according to the most recent Department of Public Safety annual report.

Campus crime totals dropped across the board in the past year — but the online news site Daily Beast still labeled Brown the third-most dangerous Ivy League institution based on crime statistics.

DPS releases these numbers as a part of its yearly campus crime report, a document released under the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to tally the amount of crime on their campuses and record the preventative steps that their public safety departments are taking. But experts debate the usefulness of the data and how on-campus safety is compared.


Statistical findings

The key highlights of the report included drops in nearly every major crime statistic during the last year. The school saw a 19 percent reduction in burglaries and a drop in violent crimes like robbery and aggravated assault, a year after a 56 percent rise in burglaries. Reported forcible sex offenses rose back to 2007 levels, increasing from four to 10.

The most troublesome statistic for Chief of Public Safety Mark Porter was the prevalence of larcenies and other forms of theft at Brown last year, a phenomenon that reflects a nationwide trend, he said. Though the rates decreased from last year, Porter cited the poor economy as the reason the numbers did not drop even more. Larceny, which is not included on the campus reports, consists largely of laptop thefts, Porter said, which accounted for 68 crimes in 2009.

The Clery Act, passed in 1990, was originally a response to the rape and murder of Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery in 1986.

"This is one of those cases where a horrific crime caused a federal law," said Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Ross Cheit, who teaches POLS 1821T: "Criminal Justice System." "It came from one family's horrible grief and the idea that you would make more informed choices about campus, about college, if you had this kind of data."

DPS finds these statistics useful to gauge how successful its efforts have been over a calendar year, according to Porter. "Those numbers tell us that our deployment of personnel … did something very good to increase our comprehensive security program here."


Explaining the numbers

Porter credits multiple DPS initiatives for keeping crime totals lower.

"There's a lot that goes into analyzing, forecasting and anticipating crime," Porter said.

Some of these factors include monitoring and responding to trends like the national increase in burglaries and holding weekly meetings with the Providence Police Department to coordinate deployment of police officers around campus.

But Cheit said there are other factors at work related to the decrease of crime rates at Brown besides new police tactics. Any system in which the agency, either a local police or a university public safety department, reports its own crime statistics inherently generates pressure to make the numbers look better, Cheit said.

For local police departments, "the pressure is political. You want to show that crime's going down in your city, not up," Cheit said. "Here, the pressure is economic, but in either case, there's this problem that the people reporting the numbers have an interest in having the numbers look good."

Another factor that may cause numbers to be low, especially in the case of drug and alcohol offenses, is the disciplinary referral system. DPS officers have the ability to decide whether to refer students to the Office of Student Life for disciplinary action in lieu of arresting them. DPS believes that the disciplinary referral process is more efficient than focusing on arrests for minor crimes, Porter said.

These referrals lead students to the Office of Student Life, where the initial DPS report generates a review of the incident, according to Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Allen Ward. Depending on the severity of the incident, the Office of Student Life decides either to provide support for the student or to investigate the matter, and only some investigations lead to the student being charged, Ward said.


Problems with comparison

The Daily Beast's report, published in September, judged colleges based on their Clery crime statistics reported from 2006 to 2008. The publication subjectively weighted the eight major reported types of crimes indexed by the FBI, differentiating between forcible and non-forcible sex offenses. In the calculation, burglary had the smallest value while murder carried the highest. Also, the formula divided crime totals by the number of students enrolled in an attempt to accurately compare small and large campuses.

Porter said he did not know about the Daily Beast article, but general safety comparisons between schools can be problematic.

"I don't know what formula they used, but it's often somewhat dangerous to make comparisons because each campus is different," Porter said.

Cheit agreed that most methods comparing university safety are unfair. Many factors other than numbers alone go into overall safety of a campus, including how urban the school is and how many of the students drive cars, Cheit said.

"There's so many things that you might adjust to make them comparable that aren't done," he said, adding that such comparisons are often "useless."

The University also does not put that much weight on comparisons between schools, said Vice President of Public Affairs and University Relations Marisa Quinn. Instead of focusing on how safe Brown is compared to other schools, the University focuses on how safe Brown is for its students, she said.

Cheit cautioned against translating statistics into a barometer of safety.

"Go to the FBI's website, the Uniform Crime Reports, and the first thing they'll say is crime reports aren't really comparable across jurisdictions," Cheit said. "Not to say crime stats are without value. They're valuable for things like comparing the same jurisdiction over time, and even then, they have their limits."

Porter agreed that statistics are not the only method of judging the safety of a campus. DPS does a survey every few years to see if the issues they find to be most important, such as the increase in burglaries, match up with the concerns of students.

"Statistics are very important, but it's important to know if we're treating the issues the community feels are a priority," Porter said.


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