Crime Alerts and Safety: What Should We Really Be Warned About?

UC Berkeley’s Clery Timely Warnings warn Berkeley community members through email about crime alerts in the area. The name comes from the Jeanne Clery Act, initially signed in 1990, which mandates that the university collect and maintain reports of criminal activity.

The consistent email warnings started in February 2016 when the campus switched to a Nixle communication platform. Nixle does not require special software and can be sent from any location with a computer to make it easier to put out an alert during non-business hours. Nixle is set up so everyone with an email address receives the Timely Warnings with the option for other community members to sign up for free.

Each year the campus publishes the Campus Annual Security Report to inform students and community members about safety on campus. While crime reports have always been made available to the public, the email alerts have been a recent addition in the past two years. The goal of these email alerts is to promote safety within the Berkeley community by increasing awareness. This goal claims that awareness of current criminal activities will reduce incidences of crime and is the most effective strategy to keep the Berkeley community safe.

What this system has not accounted for is the high stress it brings to Berkeley students and the misconceptions it causes. There are some weeks where alerts are sent out every day, making Berkeley students feel that the community is unsafe and that there is a high prevalence of crime. These email warnings have led people to believe there is more crime in the area than there actually is. In reality, there has been a decrease of criminal activity in Berkeley over the past two years, but the email warnings have still led people to feel on edge every time they walk alone.

I asked some UC Berkeley students about their thoughts on the email warnings:

“The emails terrify me. When it is past 7 p.m., I cannot walk alone. I have to call an Uber because I am too scared to walk home.”

“I am more scared when the warning is about a crime that happened around where I live.”

Other students replied:

“I get too many a day and do not open them anymore. Often times the warnings come in hours or days after the crime has been committed.”

“I don’t think that the emails are executed in a way that makes them helpful.”

When asked if there has been one race reported more than others in the crime reports, all the interviewees replied, “Yes. Black.”

Although the purpose of these emailed warnings is to inform students of crime in the area, they often bring about feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Many emails have minimal and vague descriptions of the suspects such as their race and gender, the most commonly noted description being “African American male.” Are these warnings increasing safety or promoting racial profiling?

When asked if there have been any complains about the email warnings, Sabrina Reich, the Public Information Officer of the UCPD answered, “Some people do not want to receive them, and we inform them they can opt out. Other complaints have come from the way some of the warnings were worded. We try to listen to complaints or suggestions from the community to improve our warnings.”

The Public Health Advocate: Do Clery warnings include all crimes reported?

Sabrina Reich: There are very specific Clery crimes which we are required to alert the community to via Timely Warnings. We put out warnings when we feel there is an ongoing threat to the community. Some of the Clery-reportable crimes include homicide, rape, sexual battery, robbery and aggravated assault.

PHA: What successes/downfalls have you found from the Clery warnings?

SR: A community is much safer when they are aware of crimes that occur in their community. One of the essential parts of the Timely Warnings is the crime prevention tips included in the warnings. These tips are crime specific and enable our community members to take an active role in their personal safety.