Virginia Tech officials are linking increased caution and federal regulations to an increase in e-mail crime notifications in the past two months.
The notifications are sent out to comply with the Clery Act, a federal law named for Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery — who was raped and murdered in her residence hall. The rule requires universities receiving federal financial aid funds to report crime statistics and provide “timely warnings” for campus crimes.
The Department of Education determined in December that Tech violated the Clery Act in its response to the campus shootings on April 16, 2007.
“That’s kind of brought it to the front of people’s discussions and people are noticing the (timely warnings) coming out a little bit more because of that,” said Lieutenant Deborah Morgan of Tech Police.
But Mark Owczarski, university spokesman, said the standards for compliance with the Clery Act are changing.
“The Clery Guidelines, as determined by the federal government, have changed over time,” Owczarski said. “There are standards, there are new interpretations, there are new protocols and policies, so there are many variables out there.”
Gene Deisinger, deputy chief of Tech Police, said the warning e-mails are used to spread information, not just to warn about active threats. Several other factors have contributed to the increase in notifications, including the number of crimes that justify it as well as new technologies.
“There is another factor that has changed over recent years, and that is the rapidity with which information, accurate or inaccurate, about an incident occurring in the community flares around the community outside of official notifications,” Deisinger said.
He said this rapid flow of information was the reason behind the Jan. 19 notification about a man seen carrying an assault rifle.
“Blacksburg (Police) cleared that as unfounded,” Deisinger said, “but there was so much misinformation about that incident that they chose to put out a release and we chose to ask University Relations’ assistance in getting that out to the community. Not because we believed there was a threat, but because of the misinformation people believed there was a threat.”
“Ten years ago you didn’t have that speed of information going out through text messaging,” Deisinger said. “So that’s become a factor that was never anticipated in the formulation of the law.”
Morgan said there aren’t clear indicators as to which incident necessitates an alert, and that the process for making that decision is constantly changing.
A recent notification brought attention to a forcible fondling that occurred in November, but had only been recently reported.
“When the incident goes out on our daily crime log, the automatic assumption when they see a forcible fondling or a sexual assault, people just have these images that they make in their mind based on their experiences or news or whatever, and that is, ‘Some stranger jumped out of the bushes and attacked this person,’” Morgan said.
“We just want the community to be aware of what’s going on. They may hear information, they hear pieces of information, and by the time that information gets to the third person it’s nowhere even close to what it started like.”
Owczarski said there is often a need to find a balance between enough information and too much information, and that the balance is hard to achieve.
“One of the things I’m concerned about is getting to a number of crime reports that desensitizes the community, which stops listening,” Deisinger said. “In regard to the timely warnings that have been sent out this past month or so, the police department gets a whole range of responses to those, from ‘Take me off your mailing list, I don’t want to be bothered with this stuff’ to, ‘Thank you for keeping us informed, it’s satisfying to know that we’re kept up to date about it.’”
Deisinger also said the department receives tips in response to some of the notification, and that the tips can help solve crimes.
“The intent of the law is to keep the community as aware of ongoing safety issues as possible.”