Public Disservice Alert
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 01:02
Two dark-skinned black males, average weight, average height. One has dreadlocks and was seen wearing high-top sneakers; the other was wearing a hooded jacket with yellow and blue.
This is the gist of the descriptions sent to students Saturday by the Department of Public Safety. They describe two men who were expected to be targeting Georgetown for burglary, specifically expensive items like iPads and laptops.
We don’t question the veracity of this tip-off, the importance of preventing crime or the occasional need for police to report the identities of suspected criminals. What we do question, however, is whether a report as vague as that sent by DPS can do more harm than good to the Georgetown campus community.
The issue at hand is not specifically one of race, although racial profiling is certainly a sensitive issue in the United States with both the police and the public. Rather, the concern is whether such a non-descriptive description of the suspects can actually do anything to stop crime. If one of the suspects had a particularly unique characteristic or if there was a photograph or police sketch available, then a warning would certainly be appreciated. Instead, we have a description that could apply to the majority of black men, attracting unfair attention to the innocent while doing nothing to accurately identify the guilty.
Consider, furthermore, that the descriptions offered were not necessarily generated by experts. How easily can the average person estimate another’s weight, for example? Would it be as precise as "about 140 lbs."? Should students call the police every time they see a black male of average height and weight in their dormitories?
Without more specificity, these details don’t warrant mass publicity. Of course citizens should always contact the police regarding suspicious behavior of anyone, but this warning is more likely to elicit false suspicion and 911 calls than anything else.
The underlying objective behind these DPS alerts is to keep the university community in the know on potential risks to their safety and encourage them to take the appropriate precautions, such as taking extra care to lock their doors. The benefit of providing further information about the suspects in these alerts — especially if vague or overarching — should be weighed against the cost of causing unwarranted suspicion of innocent individuals.
We commend the service DPS provides the university community and have no doubts that it is diligently looking for the individuals involved in crime. DPS should, however, exercise more discretion in deciding what information is actually helpful to the public. Efforts like these done on behalf of public safety can occasionally become a public disservice.