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Universities Alert Campuses to Crimes, but Not Nearby Residents

By DNAinfo Staff | March 5, 2014 8:34am
 University police in Chicago
University police in Chicago
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NEAR WEST SIDE — When a University of Illinois at Chicago student was robbed near campus last month, the school sent out an "urgent" email alert to staff and students warning them of what happened and providing a description of a suspect.

But even though the crime happened on a residential street off campus, those alerts didn't go to neighborhood residents. That's because the school doesn't allow members of the public onto its email alert list or to receive alerts via text message, which schools send out in even more serious situations, such as a shooter on campus.

Some residents, however, said they would very much like to receive the information.

"It makes me feel like they're not really part of the neighborhood, even though we share the same space," said Jenny Matta, a nurse who lives with her family about a block from where the robbery took place on the 1200 block of West Flournoy Street. "You want to make sure everyone's working for the safety of not only all UIC students, but the neighborhood, too."

 A University of Illinois at Chicago police car.
A University of Illinois at Chicago police car.
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The school is not alone: Loyola and DePaul, which also maintain their own police forces, also will not send email or text alerts to the general public. While all three schools post alerts online, only Loyola regularly uses Twitter to alert followers about crime near the school.

"It's hard to understand why you wouldn’t want that to go out directly to residents," said Ben Joslin, who also lives near the UIC campus and close to where the student was robbed. "It’s a state institution. We are the homeowners and renters and business owners who are the custodians of the off-campus community. It seems to me they should share this information. It would be the neighborly thing to do."

The University of Chicago, however, does send email alerts to members of the public that request them for crimes requiring "immediate" notification. However, a system that sends text messages alerting more serious "life-threatening" emergencies is only available to faculty and staff.

Bob Mason, crime analyst and spokesman for the University of Chicago Police Department, said his department has included the public on its email alerts since 2008 in order to promote public safety.

"The intention is to advise people when we have a crime because it puts people in danger, and we want to alert them on campus," said Mason, whose officers patrol an area from 39th Street to 64th Street and from Cottage Grove Avenue to the lake, excluding Jackson Park. "Obviously, what we want to do is warn people so they take precautions."

While the alerts are mainly for on-campus crime, U. of C. policy allows police to send an alert when there is a violent crime in its patrol area between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., when a crime involves a child, or if it takes place near a school or a high-traffic location like a Metra stop. Hate crimes off-campus also can be alerted.

UIC takes a different stance: The federal Clery Act, which was enacted in 1990 so students and their families could learn more about crime on campus or involving students, requires schools to give "timely warnings" of crimes to the campus community, but does not require notification of the public. Officials see it as the Chicago Police Department's job to send alerts to the public.

"That's not our responsibility," said Bill Burton, UIC spokesman. "Our responsibility is to notify our campus community. We do that in compliance with federal law. The Clery Act calls for timely notification, which our crime alerts do."

The nonprofit Clery Center for Security on Campus in Pennsylvania, which provides training on compliance with the law, said the legislation doesn't prohibit schools from sending alerts to the public.

"Our organization emphasizes embracing not just the letter but the spirit of the law," said Abigail Boyer, assistant executive director. "Ultimately, the end goal is to keep the campus community safe, therefore, many institutions choose to send out additional alerts that may not be required under federal law in an effort to keep the community informed."

Burton said that the UIC crime alerts posted on the Web could be accessed by the public using an RSS Feed. He said a separate text alert system for even more serious emergencies, while only available to students or staff, allows users to submit more than one phone, so a student could sign up a parents' cellphone, for example.

Joslin, who works in information technology for an investment firm, questioned why the school would limit text or email messages and criticized RSS as an old technology that is not widely used. Alternatively, he suggested the school alert the public via its Twitter account.

Patrick Kenny, a Chicago CAPS beat facilitator for an area near Loyola University, said he also would like to be notified of campus crime via email or text, just as students and faculty are.

"That is an area that probably needs to be improved," he said. "On something like this, I would think the community relations from Loyola would think it's a plus on their part to be able to notify the residents."

Kenny said Loyola has done "a lot of good community outreach," but the school — which has 49 officers and security guards patrolling its Rogers Park and Streeterville campuses and an area as far as two blocks from its borders — could always do more.

"They're a big player in the area," he said.

Loyola sends Tweets about crimes near campus, but Loyola spokeswoman Maeve Kiley said the school doesn't email or text the public "because we use an internal email distribution system for Loyola announcements and can't add people to the crime alerts. Right now, it is our policy that only faculty, staff, and students can sign up for our Loyola alert system."

A DePaul spokeswoman said, "DePaul does not have a way for the community to get on the email list to receive the notifications. ... DePaul University does not allow community members to sign up to receive email alerts of crimes on campus or in the neighborhood, but does post the incidents on a Web page that is visible to the public."

Contributing: Ben Woodard, Josh McGhee, Paul Biasco, Dave Newbart