April 3, 2015

Students insecure in security alerts

Lack of information on the function of security alerts leads to student frustration with the UCPD.

During finals week last quarter, the University of Chicago community received a security alert about Ross Jacobs, who had stabbed his roommate multiple times and had not yet been apprehended. This was after the incident had already been reported by media sources, such as DNAinfo and the Chicago Tribune. Many students were upset to learn of the stabbing through these sources first, rather than through the University. However, the frustration surrounding this incident and other similar cases speaks to a misunderstanding on the part of students regarding the criteria under which incidents are reported in security alerts. Students should not expect to receive a security alert for every mugging or robbery reported in Hyde Park. However, in the interest of alleviating students’ frustrations and ensuring a sense of safety, the University should take steps to better communicate to students the purpose of security alerts and to clarify the conditions under which they are issued.

The University policy on security alerts reads, “The goal of sending a timely security alert is to give members of the campus community information that will allow them to adjust their behavior to protect their personal safety.” Security alerts are not intended to inform students of every crime that occurs on or near campus. Such information is reported through the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) and Chicago Police Department (CPD)’s incident reports, which are updated daily. If security alerts were released with the same or similar frequency, students would likely just stop reading them, and the security alerts would be less effective. This is one of the factors the UCPD must weigh when deciding to alert the community of an incident. Security alerts specifically focus on incidents that involve “continuing threats to the campus community,” a judgment made on a case-by-case basis by UCPD Chief Marlon Lynch. Incidents which are considered isolated by the UCPD do not warrant a security alert.

Many students, though, do not fully understand the end goal of the security alert system or what factors need to be weighed to achieve this goal most effectively. Although the purpose and scope of security alerts are outlined in the policy online, this policy’s existence is not readily apparent to students. In addition, it is filled with vague and legalistic terms. It is clear that, in order to address student frustrations surrounding security alerts, the UCPD must take further steps to educate students about the policy. At the very least, the current policy on security alerts could be attached in a hyperlink at the bottom of security-alert e-mails.

Because the current policy does not lend itself well to student understanding, we advise the UCPD to go further. The UCPD should publish a more readable document with the purpose of explaining to students in clearer terms the function of security alerts and the general guidelines followed when considering whether students should be notified of a particular incident. A link to this could then be attached to the bottom of security alerts, and its contents could be explained in Chicago Life Meetings during O-Week. There are many ways that the UCPD could go about elucidating the function and process behind security alerts, and these are just some of them.

When students first hear about a crime through the media rather than from the UCPD, they may feel left out of the loop and possibly unsafe. The typical reaction to these feelings is not to go online and search for the UCPD’s security alert policy. Thus, the onus falls on the UCPD to proactively educate students and address these frustrations.

—The Maroon Editorial Board