Campus crime decreased after coronavirus, but crime statistics remain varied and ‘confusing’

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The University of Illinois Police Department operates from the Public Safety Building, 1110 W. Springfield Ave., Urbana.

Before University of Illinois students were sent home in mid-March due to coronavirus, there were at least 183 crimes in Champaign-Urbana reported directly to university police since January 1 — mostly underage drinking and theft. After March 21, the total number of crimes reported decreased, with 52 crimes directly reported to university police as of May 31 according to the daily crime log.

Theft was the most common crime reported to University of Illinois police before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order due to COVID-19 was issued on March 21, 2020. Chart produced by CU-CitizenAccess.

The top crimes reported directly to the university police after coronavirus sent students home through May 31 include theft, trespassing, and mostly non-violent crimes. In all of 2019, university police received between 2-3 reports a day — but the report rate dropped to 1 report a day between March 1, 2020 and May 31, 2020.

By March 13, many students were already off-campus when students were ordered to move out of dorms and go home for the semester for online instruction. There were significantly fewer students on campus because of the state’s stay-at-home order, leaving the campus with roughly 13% of the typical student body living in residence halls and university apartments, according to University Housing Director Alma Sealine in an interview with the News-Gazette on April 3, 2020. 

Crime decreased after the stay-at-home order for Illinois was issued on March 21, 2020. With more students gone, crime was more varied and low in count. Chart produced by CU-CitizenAccess.

But the daily crime log reports on their own aren’t as simple as they might appear because not all crimes occurred on campus. 

‘Confusing’ federal laws outline crime reporting guidelines on campuses

The University Police Department maintains the log as part of the federal Clery Act, a requirement for universities that participate in the federal student aid program to disclose information about certain crimes both on their campuses and in the surrounding communities. This means that Clery Act crimes that didn’t necessarily occur on campus are still included on the log, even if they’re reported to another police agency like Champaign or Urbana police.

Therefore, it’s not a police blotter for the university — but instead a log of crimes in the area that must be collected for federal reporting standards. 

While critics across the country complain about the confusion the crime reporting causes, questions have raised about police undercounting crimes by ignoring those that occurred on property immediately adjacent to campuses.

However, the “Clery crimes” listed can be analyzed to see which police department it was reported to or whether a campus security authority (CSA) reported it. University Police Communications Director Patrick Wade also said in an email that campus authority reports do not prompt a police investigation unless the victim wishes to report it to them.

“A lot of [CSA reports] come through the university’s Title IX office,” Wade said. “It’s very, very common for a victim to pursue a Title IX investigation through the university, but not a police investigation. But that bit of detail is not reflected in the daily crime log.”

Crimes on the daily crime log are reported with locations and block areas for crimes that occurred outside. In 2020, the most common locations include the bars Red Lion on 211 E Green St. and Kams Bar on 102 E Green St., and multiple student residence halls. 

The most common crimes at the bars include unlawful use of I.D. and theft, among other rarer crimes such as aggravated battery. Residence halls saw reports of underage liquor use or possession and theft. General block locations saw a wide variety of crimes, such as fighting, motor vehicle theft and unlawful use of I.D. 

Note that underage liquor possession cases are referred to student discipline and are reported as a field interview on the daily crime log — not labeled as directly referred to university police. 

Wade says the department saw roughly the same level of criminal activity during the spring semester that they would normally expect to see during the summer and fall/winter breaks.

Not all crimes of every nature are recorded on the log — even some crimes directly reported to university police are not included according to Wade. He said the crime log usually causes more confusion than clarity about campus crime:

“The daily crime log by its nature puts more emphasis on violent crimes and crimes against women because of the reporting lines that have been set up to feed it – the Campus Security Authority (CSA) reporting line being chief among them,” he said. “So those violent crimes are going to show up with more prevalence in the daily crime log because that’s primarily what we’re trying to capture.”

Seminars and courses needed to understand how to report

In fact, the law is so specific and detailed that there are national seminars and courses on the Clery Act in order to train and learn all the information needed to report properly. 

Although university police confirmed crime did decrease in the 2020 spring semester, the daily crime log will not match the crime statistics according to the instructions for reading the log:

“The crime log incidents will not match the crime statistics, as the crime log is compiled using the Illinois Crime Code and the crime statistics are required by law to be compiled using the Federal Uniformed Crime Reporting crime definitions.” 

However, the university police blotter does not always provide detailed public safety information, including crime statistics throughout the year. Every crime counted in the Clery Act is reviewed to see whether a campus alert is necessary. As long as the crime presents an ongoing threat and is timely, a 7-day cutoff, alerts are sent out via text and email to students and staff at the university, but are often few in number for Clery crimes each semester due to the nature of the law. 

This spring, only one Illini Alert was sent regarding a curfew announced for Champaign-Urbana after alleged looting activity on May 31 and the morning after. Another was issued during the summer on June 14 for a shooting on campus. 

Because of the federal crime reporting standards, finding reliable crime statistics is difficult, and could be delayed up to two weeks because of Freedom of Information Act response time laws. The most reliable source of statistics from the university is the annual security and fire safety report, based on Clery Act standards, but the latest numbers are from 2018 as of June 22, 2020, Wade said.

The shutdown of campus hasn’t impacted the University Police Department’s services — patrols and emergency responses are still 24-hour services — but instead has just reduced criminal activity overall, Wade said.

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