Students Critical of Suspect Descriptions in PSAs
Published: Friday, February 15, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 15, 2013 13:02
Public safety alerts issued by the Department of Public Safety generally report recent crime on or surrounding Georgetown’s campus. A PSA released Feb. 9, however, warned the community of potential criminals targeting university students with specific physical descriptions of the suspects.
The PSA was issued based on a tip received from Chris Scott (COL ’14), who overheard the suspects described in the alert discussing intended crimes on a train last Friday afternoon.
“Two individuals got on at a stop, and one sat down on the seat in front of me and one sat down on the seat next to me,” Scott said.
While the men initially discussed other topics, their conversation shifted to money, after which a third man said that Georgetown would be a good location to stage burglaries because of the number of wealthy students.
“They sat down and they started talking about how they were going to get their money this week, and then they started talking about the last college I guess they had [burglarized], Catholic University,” Scott said. “They said that they liked to take things from people … not [just] that they liked to, but that they do.”
Scott reported what he heard to DPS as soon as he arrived on campus. The next day, DPS released descriptions of the individuals to the community, describing both as dark-skinned black males, one in Oakley goggles with dreadlocks and another in a yellow hood.
According to DPS Chief of Police Jay Gruber, the department disseminates alerts when it believes the information could be used to help keep the community safe.
“In many cases we are mandated [legally] to send the messages.” Gruber said. “In other cases, we send messages when we feel that we have important safety information to provide to our commnity.”
Gruber said this was the thinking that led to the dissemination of a detailed suspect description in Saturday’s alert.
“We received information and it came from a credible source and we thought it was important to share that information with the community rather than keeping it to ourselves,” Gruber said.
Gruber is one of the decision makers when the university considers whether to issue an alert. Other key groups involved include DPS, the Office of University Counsel, the Office of Communications and the Division of Student Affairs. Although many people take part, Gruber emphasized that this does not slow response times.
“It’s a process that happens very, very quickly,” Gruber said. “The leadership group, when they get the drafts of these messages, are very quick to engage and get these messages out.”
However, DPS does not issue PSAs for crimes with known suspects who have been apprehended — as was the case with Wednesday’s arrest of James McFerguson, who attempted to break into university townhouses on the 3600 block of Prospect Street — or when an alert would jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
“If there’s something of an investigatory nature that we feel would compromise an investigation but not endanger the public, we probably would not release that,” Gruber said.
Five PSAs concerning residential burglaries have been released so far in 2013, describing incidents in Harbin, Copley and McCarthy Halls. Descriptions of the suspects in those crimes have not been released to the public, although key people, including security guards are aware of what they look like. He said he would check with his leadership staff to see who needed to receive the information. According to Gruber, one of the burglars is female and the other is male, but the two are believed to be operating separately.
“We know what they look like, but we just haven’t found them yet,” Gruber said.
Gruber maintained, however, that it is important for students to receive detailed descriptions of perpetrators.
“To withhold descriptors on race, whether it’s a male or a female, whether the person is tall or short, would be doing a disservice to the community,” Gruber said. “We take the information that’s given to us. … It has nothing to do with whether we’re being sensitive to diversity.”
Some students voiced discontent with the contents of Saturday’s PSA on a Facebook group for Georgetown transfer students, on which Scott had posted a warning about what he had overheard on the train last Friday.
Justin DeLoatch (COL ’14), a member of the Facebook group who commented on Scott’s post, said he believes that the public safety alert would have been just as helpful without the physical description of the suspects.
“As a black man, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk around campus knowing that this is what people are looking for,” DeLoatch said. “I have braids that most people mistake for dreads, and [the alert] didn’t say anything about dread length.”