University of MN changes crime-alert race-reference policy after criticism

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University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler announced Wednesday that use of racial descriptions will be reduced considerably in U police crime alerts.

The issue has been a contentious one on campus since the student group Whose Diversity? staged a sit-in Feb. 9 in Kaler’s Morrill Hall offices and listed the cessation of racial descriptions in crime reports as one of its primary demands.

Kaler’s announcement said references to a suspect’s race will be used only when there is sufficient information to aid the search for the criminal. The crime alerts will note that “only a limited description of the suspect(s) is available” when the information provided is too general to provide an accurate description.

“We have heard from many in our community that the use of race in suspect descriptions in our Crime Alerts may unintentionally reinforce racist stereotypes of Black men, and other people of color, as criminals and threats,” Kaler said. “That in turn can create an oppressive climate for some members of our community, a climate of suspicion and hostility.

“We are committed to creating a welcoming and diverse campus. To do so, we must ensure our campus is safe for all of our students, faculty, and staff while balancing interests that are sometimes competing,” Kaler continued. “Our safety practices need to reflect an ongoing awareness of that balance.”

In a statement released Wednesday after the U announcement,  Whose Diversity? wrote that it doesn’t think the changes move the needle far enough toward eliminating racial profiling.

“Whose Diversity? believes these “changes” are merely bread crumbs meant to pacify dissent and halt further actions toward justice,” the statement said. “The administration wishes to end the conversation here. But moderate concessions are not enough to ensure the safety of students of color on this campus, and Whose Diversity? will not stop calling for substantive change until justice is served.”

The group did not specify what additional changes in the policy would mollify its members, who have also been pressing the university to expand its Latino-Chicano studies faculty and provide more gender-neutral restrooms on campus.

Referring to the school’s plans to change its crime-alert wording, U Vice President Pamela Wheelock said Wednedsay that she and Kaler reviewed 51 crime alerts that included limited racial descriptions — finding that 30 percent of those alerts supplied insufficient information for anybody to reasonably assess if a person presents a “danger” to students on campus.

“The key will be to provide useful, actionable information that community members can use to keep themselves safe, while reflecting the University’s commitment to ensuring a welcoming and diverse campus,” Wheelock said.

The U’s crime alerts have included suspect descriptions since 2012 regardless of the amount of information available, but now U Chief of Police Greg Hestness and Wheelock herself will examine each advisory on a case-by-case basis to decide if a suspect’s description is necessary.

Wheelock added that while suspect descriptions have benefited some students by informing them and increasing their sense of safety, other students, especially Black males, have been negatively impacted in terms of overall campus climate and the security of Black students.

“They (Black students) express concern that Crime Alerts that include race reinforce stereotypes of Black men as threats and create a hostile campus climate,” Wheelock said in Wednesday’s announcement..

Reporters Chris Chesky and Cora Hyun Jung are studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.

Thanks to the Murphy News Service for sharing this story with us.