This article is the second installment of The Eye’s reporting on Clery Crime Alerts. Read the first here.
In July of 2015, Columbia Public Safety sent out a Clery Crime Alert to over 40,000 people. The email alert included a picture of two boys, accusing them of stealing a bicycle from Pupin.
An investigation by The Eye has found that this July 2015 bicycle theft alert was not the only recent Clery Crime Alert that included photos of the faces of people who appear to be under 18.
In the past three years, Public Safety has sent out at least two other Clery Crime Alerts containing pictures of people who clearly appear to be minors—one about a scooter theft outside the Medical School in October 2015, and one about a fondling on Morningside Avenue in January 2017. On three further occasions, alerts featured suspects who were identified by Public Safety as being in their late teens to early twenties. In total, these six alerts broadcasted the faces of eight suspects, all eight of whom appear to be black. (In an effort to prevent further publicity of these young people’s faces, the unredacted alerts do not appear in this article.)
Public Safety is a private organization and is not legally obliged to protect the identities of kids who don’t attend Columbia. Nevertheless, alerts showing the faces of underage suspects accused of petty crimes differ notably from both New York legal policy, which offers special protections for accused children, and from the standards of most media institutions, which will only expose a minor’s identity for the most serious crimes. In contrast, Public Safety does not seem to exhibit particular caution when sending out alerts implicating people who appear to be minors.
Last month, The Eye reported that Public Safety’s Clery Crime Alerts disproportionately emphasize crime by non-Columbia students and rarely alert the Columbia community to student-on-student crime, especially stalking, dating violence, and on-campus sexual assault, shaping Columbia students’ perception of race and crime.
When the Pupin bicycle alert came out, Darializa Avila Chevalier, who was then a rising senior at Columbia, emailed Vice President of Public Safety James McShane to tell him that she found Public Safety’s habit of “criminalizing black and brown boys very alarming.”
James McShane responded. “I regret that you find our alerts alarming,” he wrote. “I also regret that you have chosen to view the alerts through the lens of race.” But he offered to talk with Avila Chevalier over the phone, and later agreed to an in-person meeting.
Avila Chevalier, who was a writer and illustrator for Spectator in 2014 and 2015, graduated from Columbia in 2016 and now works for the New York chapter of Black Youth Project 100. She feels that “race is definitely a factor” in Public’s Safety decisions to send out alerts.
“It’s not a coincidence that Black children are criminalized at much higher rates and are often assumed to be and treated as much older than they actually are,” Avila Chevalier wrote in an email, noting that black children are much more likely than white children to be tried as adults for similar infractions. “When Columbia sends out Crime Alerts of children in this way, it furthers a long history of portraying black children as violent aggressors.”
Columbia sends out these alerts pursuant to the Clery Act. In a statement to The Eye, a Public Safety spokesperson explained that its decisions to send out an alert are consistent with these federal guidelines.
These federal guidelines currently present themselves in the form of the 2016 Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting, a publication from the Department of Education. This handbook emphasizes that the decision to issue an official alert should be made on a “case-by-case” basis, and that colleges should only issue an alert only when a crime is “reasonably contiguous” to campus and when it represents a “serious or continuing threat” to campus safety.
The handbook then presents a series of hypothetical questions intended to provide a framework to determine whether a crime fits these criteria: “Did two students get drunk and attempt to steal a golf cart from the campus one night, or does it appear that professional car thieves are preying on your campus?” “Does a criminal incident appear to be a one-time occurrence or does it fall into a pattern of reported crimes?”
A crime alert from October of 2015 accused two kids, one of whom was identified as a “much younger male, 10-14 yrs” of trying and failing to steal a Razor scooter on the sidewalk just outside Columbia’s Irving Cancer Center on 167th.
Were the two boys part of a syndicated ring of professional scooter thieves preying on the CUMC campus? Did the incident appear to be a one-time occurrence or did it fall into a repeated pattern of reported crimes? In fact, the incident was the only robbery reported to Public Safety near the Medical Campus in the three year period from 2014 to 2016, when Columbia’s data is available.
A one-time, failed robbery of a kick-propelled scooter, the kind of scooter that could make or break your social status in elementary school, does not, by the handbook’s standards, seem to present a continuing threat to the student body.
In a statement to The Eye, a Public Safety spokesperson disagreed, saying there is a continuing threat if the person is unknown or has not been caught.
The spokesperson pointed out in another statement that the Clery Act does not contain an exemption for suspects under 18. Although there is no blanket exemption, Public Safety seems to have acknowledged in the past that certain children are too young to be alerted—they cropped the picture to remove the face of the “10-14 year old” allegedly involved in the scooter incident. In this case, the spokesperson said Public Safety had concluded he was “conclusively and unambiguously a minor” and not “the primary aggressor.”
Riya Shah, a lawyer at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, tells me that Public Safety’s inclusion of the faces of apparent minors in the Clery Crime Alerts is “very different” from the standards of protection enjoyed by other juveniles who have been accused or even convicted of crimes. When it comes to keeping court records confidential, Shah says the New York laws are actually quite protective and says that records are “almost never” available to the public online.
Shah points to an irony: Minors who plead guilty for crimes enjoy a greater right to privacy than minors who are merely alleged perpetrators of crimes. In other words, if one of the boys accused of trying to steal a bicycle had been cuffed, fingerprinted, arraigned, and convicted, his photo, and the fact that he committed a crime, would be sealed under lock and key. His face would certainly not have been sent to over 40,000 people. When I emailed Shah pictures of the alerts, she said what struck her the most “is how protective juvenile court records are in New York versus this.”
But this comparison is by no means a perfect one, given that Public Safety is a private institution and not beholden to New York state laws around juvenile protection.
Still, some private institutions set a precedent by only releasing the name or face of underage suspects for the most serious infractions. The Associated Press, for example, releases the name or identifying photo of an underage suspect or witness only in “extraordinary cases” and only with the approval of AP’s headquarters in New York.
Civil rights organizations have also argued that private institutions should be held to a higher standard when it comes to exposing minors: A 2008 memo from the ACLU to the newly elected President Obama and the 111th Congress recommended that “State and federal law should hold companies accountable that sell background checks or records reflecting expunged or sealed juvenile adjudications.”
Yvonne Thevenot has a teenage son and runs a nonprofit on 125th Street called STEM Kids NYC. She echoes Avila Chevalier’s language, calling the alerts “extremely alarming.” Thevenot notes that alerting pictures of children does not subscribe to what Columbia says it does for the community. “I’m sure that the people at Columbia who put out diversity grants [and] community grants are not talking to the same people who are policing, or who in partnership with the New York City police are blasting out these pictures of these young children.”
But other parents in the community say the safety of their children is paramount. Laura Pfortmiller, who lives in Washington Heights, says her 15-year old daughter was recently groped on the street at 125th street. Referencing a Columbia Public Safety alert about two boys who allegedly fondled a women, she says, “Frankly, I have no problem with that.”
Another parent, Isis Ramos, who sent her child to school on 123rd street, says she thinks crime has gone up, and says that kids commiting crimes are getting away with it because of their age. (According to NYPD stats, crime on average is down in the precinct, in line with citywide trends.) When I ask her if she worries that Public Safety’s alerts brand children as criminals for life, Ramos says, “If you are committing a criminal act, then you are a criminal.”
Nevertheless, the idea that kids should be held less culpable for criminal behavior is not a new one; in fact, it’s part of the canon we learn at Columbia. In his Confessions, Augustine attributed his pear-stealing in part to “youthful weakness.” Philosophers from Aristotle to Locke argue that children are not yet fully rational.
The United States first created a separate juvenile justice system in the Chicago area in 1899, and by the 1920s, every state in the country had a criminal system in place that treated children differently than adults. Although protections for accused kids took a beating during the tough-on-crime ’80s and ’90s, certain protections, like keeping juvenile records for less serious crimes confidential, are now entrenched in most states’ laws.
Kids who are sentenced in the juvenile system even face a different label—they are “adjudicated juveniles” rather than “convicted criminals.”
In a published memo opposing a 1999 bill that would weaken protections for kids accused of crime, the American Civil Liberties Union argued, “It is in society’s interest to allow children the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and prepare for a future without being hindered by the scar of bad behavior.”
I sit down with Arthur Puritz, the dean (or “the disciplinarian,” as he says) of Columbia Secondary School, a middle and high school on 123rd and Amsterdam with complex financial and institutional ties to the University. A constant stream of misbehaving students who have been sent to his office by their teachers interrupt our conversation.
Kids walk in staring at the floor, Puritz asks them why they are here, and they mumble an embarrassed response—they didn’t show up to lunch duty, or they’ve been making a ruckus in class.
Puritz tells one kid—who he will later describe as “kind of a chronic offender … a good kid”—that he needs to quit throwing paper in class, even if someone else started it. “The second guy always gets caught,” Puritz tells him. “You’re smarter than that!”
Puritz stresses that his school tries to discipline kids in a restorative and non-punitive way. He doesn’t think kids who break rules early on are “destined” to do so for the rest of their lives. Regarding Public Safety’s alerts, Puritz says he doesn’t think sending out pictures “willy nilly” is a “great idea.” Still, Puritz says he understands that every school, including Columbia, has to prioritize its own students’ safety.
As always, it’s a matter of degree. A MacArthur Foundation Research Network Report from the early 2000s opens with the following: “Two strong themes drive the nation’s juvenile justice system: the welfare of young offenders and the protection of public safety. Over the past century the pendulum has swung dramatically, emphasizing first one theme, then the other. The tension between them remains strong.”
The question for Public Safety seems to be: How does one balance civil right protections for minors with a need for transparent crime reporting? When does the potential harm done by attaching a child’s face to a crime notification email sent to over 40,000 people outweigh the potential benefits of increased awareness and safety?
In some cases, this question seems self-evident. The picture attached to the alert from January 27, 2017, for example, shows two boys, but says that only one of them was accused of fondling—without specifying which one. One of the boys in the alert was not actually accused of a crime in the alert, but tens of thousands of undergraduates, graduate students, administrative staff, and faculty members saw his face attached to an accusation of sexual assault.
The MacArthur Foundation’s image of a pendulum is useful. Picture it swinging—on one side is is an anarchist’s paradise of broken windows and chaos. On the other is a vision of total control and white picket fences. In issuing these crime alerts showing children, Public Safety’s pendulum currently swings closer to the latter.
Have fun leafing through our tenth issue!