Mass emails few, far between reported sex crimes

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Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess

An emergency phone at First and Kirby in Champaign on April 6.

For three years, the University of Illinois campus police failed to send out mass email alerts on sex-related crimes, despite requirements to do so by the U.S. Department of Education, according to a CU-CitizenAccess and The Daily Illini analysis of police records.

University police acknowledged in recent interviews that the mass emails did not go out to the campus students, faculty and staff from 2011 to 2013. The department did not view acquaintance sexual assault as an ongoing threat, said Jennifer Payan, compliance coordinator for the university police department.

In 2013, 48 sex-related crimes were reported, but no mass emails were sent out. In 2011 and 2012, there were 29 and 26 sex-related crimes reported but no mass emails were sent.

The federal act requires detailed reporting on crime on college campuses across the country, including a daily crime log, of which the latest 60 days must be made public. The act was passed by Congress in 1990 after the rape and murder of Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Since 2014, University police have sent out 17 alerts on sex-related crimes out of a total of 299 through April 30.

Police said they do not send out alerts on most of the sex-related crimes because they occur in private apartments and other off-campus locations, even though they involve students.

In addition, the release of information depends largely on aspects of each crime and on the on-duty police lieutenant’s judgment, Brown said. Notices also are not sent out if the suspects have already been apprehended.

“We ask ourselves, ‘How we can send out the notice without identifying who the victim is, and that is a struggle we go through every time we do this?’” Brown said. “We are stuck erring on the side of caution, especially because we don’t want to get fined and want to comply with the Department of Education.”

The U.S. Department of Education can fine a university $35,000 for each violation of the Clery Act. A violation is when the university fails to report an incident in a timely manner. The University can be audited at any time.

Brown added: “I wish they would just come out and say this is when we want you to do these things. They say to make the determination ourselves, and we have the authority to make the decisions, but then they come back and Monday morning quarterback and fine everyone.”

Thus far, the university has not been fined.

Location, location, location

In addition to the lack of alerts, the locations of sexual assaults are often vague in Campus Safety Notices. Specific residence halls, and fraternity and sorority names are rarely shared in order to protect the victim’s’ identity, police said.

It may appear that most sexual assaults occur in residence halls or fraternity houses because of the email alerts. However, it is only because those locations are covered under the Clery Act and trigger the need for a warning.

A CU-CitizenAccess and The Daily Illini analysis of the reported sexual-related crimes found:

  • 116 sex-related crimes are listed on a numbered block, instead of a specific street address
  • 86 occurred in unknown locations that either the victim did not know or did not wish to report
  • 64 occurred in residence halls
  • 53 occurred in private residences, such as an off campus house or apartment
  • 38 occurred in fraternity and sorority houses.

Brown said students interested in the specific locations can sometimes informally identify the victim.

“Either they saw police there, or they know that there is only a limited number of people in the location, at that fraternity at that time, so they can pretty much figure out who made this report,” Brown said.

But throughout the year, students have complained on social media about how Campus Safety Notices do not include fraternities’ names. The Campus Safety Notices are meant to inform students of crimes that are ongoing threats, but many argued online that students cannot assess risk factors if they don’t know where the crimes occurred.

Harold Zhu wrote online: “Perhaps student groups would be forced to police their members more strictly. I’m sure none of the founders intended for a gathering of rapists.  At the end of each Campus Safety Notice it reads “we care” – care about who? Perhaps not everyone.”

Jessica Colbert, graduate student, said victims should always be protected, and naming the offender could put the victim’s identity at risk. However, she believes the police department should name the fraternity.

“Too often, we focus on who these things happen to instead of who did them,” she said. “I’m not saying we should make the rapist infamous, but we could put some accountability. I feel like we are protecting the rapist under the guise of saying we want to protect the victim.”

Police respond

Police Chief Jeff Christensen said the intent of the alerts is good, but the department “can’t win if they do or don’t put them out.”

“Either way, we are going to get a bang,” Christensen said at an April 7 panel on Campus Safety Notices. “Sometimes I feel like Chief Brody in Jaws running around answering the phone, putting up signs. And we all feel that way. We are all answering calls.”

Brown said the department tries to be responsive and follow feedback, but that it often adds more confusion.

On Aug. 20, it was reported that a student was sexually assaulted at a fraternity house in Champaign, and students complained the police did not release an specific address. Two days later, police released the address of Gregory Place apartments where an alleged acquaintance sexual assault occurred.

Brian Bauer/The Daily Illini

University of Illinois Police Chief Jeff Christensen

Students then began expressing concerns about why police would name an apartment building but not a fraternity, Brown said. On Aug. 25, a fraternity house was identified on South First Street in Champaign.

In the Aug. 25 assault, students could identify the location as either Delta Chi or Alpha Rho Chi, which are the only two fraternity houses on South First Street, and a Facebook post spread with the hashtag #FratsMustFall.

“We thought there were multiple fraternities there, but there were only two. Then, we started to get upset calls from the fraternity it didn’t happen at,” Brown said. “We are trying to listen and take concerns seriously and make adjustments as we can but sometimes we just can’t.”

Timing of reports

University police intend to send out a notice within two to three hours of being notified of a crime.

If a stranger is believed to have committed a sexual assault, then police will generally send out a notice. If it was from someone known to the victim, then they use other criteria to see if it is an ongoing threat, such as a repeated location or offender.

Brown said lately the department has been erring to send reports out more frequently “just to be safe.” In 2015, the department sent out on four alerts on sex-related crimes. In 2016, they sent out nine. And in 2017, they sent out three in the first four months.

“These aren’t easy and it’s not cut and dry if it’s an ongoing threat,” Brown said. “We often think, what would the Department of Education want us to do as opposed to what we necessarily think sometimes.”

Lt. Joan Fiesta said the Campus Safety Notices provide information on resources and education on sexual assaults to try to protect and allow people to recognize bad behavior before assaults occur. She said this aspect is almost just as important as notifying people of the crime itself.

Policy concerns

Brown said the department is always trying to improve procedures and seeks advice from students and the Women’s Resource Center to identify best practices for their policy.

“I worry students could assume this is the place it happens, and there could be finger pointing of calling out a fraternity and avoiding it, and thinking everywhere else is safe. When in reality, sexual assaults do happen in many places where we don’t know exactly where it happens,” she said.

She worries naming the location could lead students to only look at the “bad guys” instead of “recognizing the spotlight is on all of us to hold each other accountable for those behaviors.”

“We get feedback when we send these out all the time, and we have people calling saying we are giving locations for everything except fraternity houses, or we are doing this or that,” Brown said. “We are trying to be consistent with how we do this, try to listen to feedback and try to provide as much as we can without identifying.”

Ultimately, Brown said the last thing the University wants to do is re-victimize victims.