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May 6, 2019

Reform Means More Security Alerts

The Reform slate’s emphasis on increased security alerts fails to acknowledge what students actually want from the UCPD.

As voting begins in the spring Student Government elections, policing has emerged as a prominent area of contrast between the CARE (Community, Amplify, Represent, Empower) and Reform slates. CARE’s platform is focused on increasing accountability, promising to provide students with a “know your rights” guide for encounters with the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), and pledging to work with student and community groups on UCPD issues. Reform’s published statements, by contrast, focus heavily on the system of emergency alerts, a clear priority for Reform’s Vice President for Administration candidate, first-year David Liang.

The slates broadly agree on the need for more transparency, as both pledge to demand the release of UCPD’s budget. Reform, oddly, also calls on UCPD to release their General Orders, a set of internal regulations that are available publicly online. CARE goes one step further, hoping to make UCPD subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a law that requires all public police departments to release their policies and procedures upon request. CARE’s position on UCPD accountability, however, is just one of nearly 20 major concerns included in their platform. For Reform, by contrast, UCPD is the first priority, reflected in the first section of their platform, and the first words in their manifesto. In light of this unwavering focus on policing, it’s worth evaluating whether Reform’s proposed changes to the alert system would actually improve campus safety.

Reform’s manifesto characterizes crime in Hyde Park as “under-reported to the student community,” citing a series of break-ins and a mugging which were not reported via a security alert. The lack of an e-mail on the security alert listserv, however, doesn’t mean information about these incidents was not readily available to students. Details about some of these incidents, such as the mugging and the home invasions, were published through the UCPD’s Daily Crime Bulletin. Others, such as most of the string of burglaries, were published through the UCPD’s Daily Crime/Fire Log. Both of these resources are readily accessible to all members of the campus community and have published details about most of the cases cited in Reform’s manifesto within 24 hours.

What UCPD did not do in any of those cases was send out a campus-wide security alert, notifying all students, faculty, and staff about these incidents. In response to widespread student complaints, UCPD adopted a higher threshold policy for security alerts in July 2018: it will only send out alerts for “significant crimes occurring on campus or immediately adjacent to campus deemed to be a continued threat.” UCPD has stated that this is largely synonymous with the reporting requirements established under the Clery Act, which requires emergency notifications for situations “involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus.” This does not include, as just one example, the reports of burglaries that used to flood UChicago inboxes on a daily basis.

Those e-mails have not gone away—students have simply been given the choice as to whether they want to opt in. What Reform seems to propose is reverting back to the old system, which entails notifying everybody about everything. One of the events they cite as “under-reported,” for instance, was a string of largely non-violent burglaries. Blasting out a security alert every time an apartment break-in occurs would mean students would receive multiple e-mails from UCPD every day—whether they want to hear about it or not.

In Reform’s interview with The Maroon, Liang cites his experience during February’s campus lockdown, which provoked widespread criticism of the cAlert system, as the inspiration for his desire to overhaul that system. While it’s certainly easy to criticize the flow of information in hindsight, it’s unclear how additional information could have been provided during the lockdown (“consistent with present danger,” as they phrase it). At one point, for example, police scanners mentioned that an offender possibly ran into Haskell Hall. This didn’t turn out to be true, and reporting it in the moment could have panicked students on the basis of false, unverified information. Security alerts ought to be confirmed before they are published, but Reform’s stance doesn’t appear to pay much attention to the possible consequences of error and the unnecessary anxieties that might follow.

This heavy-handed approach to security alerts also shines through in one of Liang’s signature achievements on College Council (CC), his Security and Response Resolution. As a proxy during that meeting of CC, I voted against the second and third clauses of the resolution, which included proposals for a “binding academic protocol” regulating class rescheduling during emergencies and, most disturbingly, “regular and irregular drills” for students. Reform’s proposals are full of this kind of language: binding protocols and mandatory drills and alerts, alerts, and more alerts that seem to serve little purpose beyond unnecessarily alarming students.

Liang and Vice President of Student Affairs candidate Anya Wang, both first-years, were not around for the heyday of the alert system, which often felt like our inboxes were connected to a police scanner. UCPD’s recent changes to the system make sense: Students can control how much information they receive about crimes, from the minimum amount required by law to all the information that UCPD can provide. If students are concerned about the “under-reporting” of crimes, they can resolve this by simply signing up for UCPD’s other e-mail lists.

Instead, Reform pursues a blunt solution. While this may be appropriate for high schoolers, it rankles when applied to adults. We are capable of making decisions about our own safety. UCPD’s current tiered alert system recognizes and respects that, but Reform attempts to make that decision for us. Reform claims that this is in the interest of student safety. Left unexplained in their lengthy public statements: how this supposedly heightened sense of security would actually make students safer.

Author’s Note: My opinions are my own, and do not reflect the positions of any slate.

Sam Joyce is a third-year in the College. 

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