The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Some trying to eliminate race from campus crime alerts

By Emma Gallegos

Last year’s increase in high-profile violent incidents around Macalester unsettled many in the community, but a group of staff, students and faculty led by Keon West ’06 said that they were particularly disturbed by what they saw as a trend of racial profiling in the descriptions of the criminal suspects in these incidents.West said that his concern began after one security alert released to both Macalester and Hamline described two suspects only as “African-American” with no reference to other physical characteristics, such as skin color, facial features or hair color and type. He said that in other security alerts there was a tendency to omit race and use more specific descriptors, with the subtle assumption that the suspect was white.

West, who is currently studying at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, brought together a group of concerned students, staff and faculty late last April to talk with Dean of Students Laurie Hamre and Director of Safety and Security Terry Gorman about his concern that racial profiling was taking place.

With the input of other students, faculty and staff, West drafted a statement intended to be released as a bulletin flash that he forwarded to Hamre early last May.

The bulletin stated, “Race will no longer be an item on Macalester College security bulletin flashes.” It went on to encourage students, faculty and staff to pay closer attention to “actual descriptive features.”

Niki Littell ’09, one of the students who met with the group, said race is ineffective in security alerts because the categories are too broad and may result in the profiling of many innocent people because of their race.

History professor Peter Rachleff and Humanities Media and Cultural Studies professor Leola Johnson, both of whom met with West, said that racial profiling happens regularly in the Macalester community. Rachleff said that every black male student he’s met in his twenty-four years of teaching has been stopped by police and questioned.

“It’s the norm,” Johnson said. “But it shouldn’t be the norm at Macalester. Someone should point out the hypocrisy.”

The group that met with Hamre late last April said that Hamre promised to release a statement to the Macalester community as a bulletin flash.

However, the college has released nothing stating its policy to date, and none of the members of the group have heard anything about the status of the bulletin flash.

Hamre takes responsibility. She said that the college was still working on its policy when school let out and at that point it was still “a little premature.” She said that she forgot to release the statement when she came back this fall, but that the college has made changes in its policy.

For now, Hamre said that the college will wait to release any statement about the new policy on race until the security office releases an alert that makes use of the policy.

“We’ll get the most out it if we wait until something happens,” Hamre said.

The only security alert this year came out two weeks ago, but the victim was not able to give any description of the perpetrator, so the question of race never came up.

West, however, said that it would be better for a statement to be released now so that people in the community are aware that they should be focusing on more than race should they need to give an accurate description of a perpetrator. By the time an incident has already happened, West said, “it might be too late.”

Hamre said that people will see a difference when they see the first alert and that the bulletin flash will highlight the change in policy.

“The way that we were doing it didn’t fit with the mission of the institution,” Hamre said.

She said that one of the biggest changes will be in the way victims are questioned after an incident. In their month-long training this year Residence Hall Directors were encouraged to ask victims questions about specific physical characteristics of criminal suspects.
Gorman also said that within his department he has talked with security officers about making sure to ask for specific details.

But neither Gorman nor Hamre want to totally rule out the use of race in suspect descriptions.

They point out that Macalester’s policy of using race in their profiles is not different than that of other ACTC schools.

“In most cases, we will not use race,” said Hamre, who expressed that she would want to leave the door open for the possibility. Her main concern in releasing security alerts is to release accurate information, to warn the community and to ask if they’ve seen anything that might be useful in catching the criminal.

Gorman said it is difficult to decide whether to use race when it is the only descriptor that a victim remembers, because he wants to provide as much information in security alerts as possible. He said that victims tend to give very vague descriptions when recounting an incident.

“We’re going to use skin tone colors and other descriptors that could be helpful but sometimes [race is] all people remember,” Gorman said.

West and Littell argue that if a person only remembers the race of the person and cannot remember any other physical characteristics that gave them the impression that they belong to a certain race, then they do not actually know what the person looks like.

Many see this debate as an important opportunity for the college.

Hamre said she was grateful that West brought the issue forward and Rachleff calls this a “teachable moment.”

“Macalester students, white or not, ought to be concerned,” Johnson said. She said that West has given the college “an opportunity to take a leadership position on this issue.”

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