University of Minnesota curtails suspect's race in crime alerts

The University of Minnesota no longer will include race and other descriptions of suspects in email crime alerts, unless there is enough detail to aid in an arrest.

The University of Minnesota no longer will include race and other descriptions of suspects in email crime alerts, unless there is enough detail to aid in an arrest.

Federal law requires that colleges and universities give timely warnings about serious safety threats on campus, but critics say the U’s routine use of racial descriptors in crime alerts has made campus unwelcoming and less safe for people of color.

University President Eric Kaler agreed, although for some, the change in practice does not go far enough.

In a letter Wednesday to faculty, staff and students, Kaler said he has been persuaded that suspect descriptions "may unintentionally reinforce racist stereotypes of black men and other people of color as criminals and threats."

Officials now plan to provide no description of a suspect unless "there is sufficient detail that would help identify a specific individual or group."


A review of 51 crime alerts since 2012 found that suspect descriptions in 15 cases would not have met the new criteria.

Pamela Wheelock, vice president for university services, said she and the campus police chief will decide case by case whether to give a description of the suspect, including race, gender and other identifiers, such as clothing or tattoos.

"There’s no recipe," she said.

Clemon Dabney, a graduate student from Bloomington who has met with Kaler and police to discuss the issue, said he wants to see the U remove racial descriptors from all crime alerts.

Dabney said it’s helpful for the community to know the types of crimes taking place, where and when they happen and what people can do to stay safe. But, he said, suspect descriptions are not useful.

Dabney said the crime alerts, which frequently point to men of color, contribute to an environment where black men are harassed by police and viewed with suspicion by their peers.

Kaler said the crime-alert issue has come up in conversations about campus safety over the past 18 months and that he’s been "moved by the personal experiences conveyed to me."

The change will help make the U a "welcoming and diverse campus," he said.


The group Whose Diversity pressed the issue Feb. 9 during a protest at Kaler’s office. Graduate student Dane Verret of New Orleans, who was one of 13 protesters arrested for trespassing that day, said racial descriptors in crime alerts do no good.

"It’s not useful to report the race or the appearance of any suspect in a crime alert," he said. "The only ones who need that information is the police."

Others said any detail the U can provide about criminal suspects can only help.

"If that’s all they have, I think that’s fine," said Abenezer Atlaw, a first-year physics student from Hopkins who was born in Ethiopia. "I don’t really see any discrimination intent."

Yulia Allar, a Ukrainian-born kinesiology senior from Minneapolis, follows the crime alerts closely and shares the information with friends. She said she sees no harm in the use of racial descriptions.

"It’s the same as saying it’s a tall person or a short person," she said. "That’s the information, just like they’re wearing a red or black jacket."

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the U’s journalism school, said the new practice is similar to the judgment news organizations make when deciding whether to publicize a suspect’s description.

And while she understands the concerns about race and discrimination, she said, she doesn’t think the U’s public safety officials should make that call.


"I’m in favor of more information rather than less information," Kirtley said. "They are not a news organization. They are the public safety and security office of a university."

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