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The University Is Not an Oasis: Crime Alert Emails, Campus Policing, and Low Enrollments of Black Students

By Jennifer Scism Ash

Numerous times each semester the campus police at my school, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), circulate mass emails detailing reports of alleged crimes that happened on or near campus. More than often, vague descriptions of bodies and clothing coupled with other details from police reports are included in these messages. While these emails seem to be designed to provide transparency, and while it is the University’s goal to provide a safe work and learning environment for members of the campus community, the descriptions contained within the crime alert emails do not provide clarity about safety issues. Instead, they facilitate the making of an unsafe space for particular students, employees, and community members, especially Black students, faculty, and staff.

The descriptions, though not contained in every “crime alert” email, are often from victims or witnesses who call the police for help. What is noticeable about these descriptions is both the frequency at which people of color are reported as perpetrators, and the generic nature of the descriptions. For example, on July 27, 2015 the campus community received an email that contained this description: “The offender, described as a black male in his 30’s, with a dark complexion, wearing a white t-shirt.” Or the email circulated on May 22, 2014 that contained this description: “The offender is described as a black male in his late teens to early 20s, 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-6, 160-170 lbs., with black hair. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a white-and-red logo, dark pants and shoes, and was carrying a dark backpack.” Each time descriptions like these are circulated, Black students, faculty, and staff as well as Black community members in the vicinity are in jeopardy of being accused of crime and harassed by campus police, unlike their white colleagues and peers, who are protected by our identity and numbers at the institution.