Open Letter to Chief of Police Barbara O’Connor

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The below post is an open letter to University of Illinois Chief of Police Barbara O’Connor which we publish at the request of several signatories. The letter responds to the use of the "Illini Alert" system by campus police.]

November 15, 2010

An Open Letter to Chief of Police Barbara O’Connor:

We write with grave concern about your recent use of the "Illini Alert" text‐messaging system on Monday, November 8, 2010 to report the assault in Forbes Hall and to search for the suspect in that incident.

The use of the system in this case was, at best, an overreaction to the incident, and, at worst, a misuse of police power that smacks of racial profiling. To tell every member of the campus community to call 911 if they see a “black male, salt/pepper hair, 40‐50 year old, 5’11, 170, med build” does not increase safety on our campus. On the contrary, through such a sweeping announcement, you have in fact put a considerable part of the campus community at risk, placing under suspicion valued colleagues, coworkers, students, and visitors solely on the basis of their race and gender. Given the local history of racial tensions, which seem to have increased dramatically over the past year, this kind of alert only exacerbates the very distrust that has been so corrosive on campus and in local communities. We believe that the use of electronic media such as text‐messaging and email to issue crime alerts has been profoundly counterproductive, with the accumulated effect of generating widespread fear and suspicion that all too often gets expressed through racial divisiveness.

The sexual assault of a student is a deeply serious matter and deserves a swift and thorough response by police and campus authorities. We are as concerned as anyone else on this campus for the safety of our students in the dorms and elsewhere. We also believe that it is important that such incidents be handled in ways that do not inspire panic or rely on racial stereotypes, but rather that educate students, faculty, and staff about the most likely scenarios for sexual assault and other crimes on our campus.

We condemn the use of the mass‐alert (text message) system to respond to such incidents. While it may be appropriate to use this technology to respond to rare cases of imminent widespread threat, such as a tornado or a bomb scare, the text‐alert system was completely inappropriate—and, indeed, reckless—in this case. We are extremely troubled that you could issue such an alert, given the appalling history of racial profiling in this country. We understand that the Clery Act requires the University to give timely warnings of crimes on our campus, but we believe that it is possible to meet that requirement via other available media. We expect you, as the police chief of a leading university, to take considerable care and responsibility when making a decision about when or if race should be mentioned in any communication. At a minimum, we urge you to use every opportunity to inform the public of the dangers of stereotyping and to remind us all of the tremendous contributions made by all racial and ethnic groups in our diverse campus community.

While you may have intended to protect students, faculty, and staff, instead you have done serious damage to the racial climate of our campus and local community. We want you to realize that electronic crime alerts, especially last Monday’s text message, undermine the ongoing and often difficult work that we do in our programs and organizations regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation, along with our daily efforts to make this campus a diverse, safe, and open‐minded place to learn and work.

We urge you to immediately revise your policy for issuing such alerts; to apologize to the campus community for this irresponsible use of police power; and to confer in meaningful and sustained ways with those of us who are committed to the pursuit of racial and gender justice and equity on our campus.


Executive Committee of the Campus Faculty Association
Senate Committee on Equal Opportunity and Inclusion
Professor James Barrett, Chair, Department of History
Professor Merle L. Bowen, Director, Center for African Studies
Professor Jorge Chapa, Director, Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society
David W. Chih, Director, Asian American Cultural Center
Jennifer DeLuna, Assistant Director, La Casa Cultural Latina
Professor Jennifer Hamer, Faculty Co‐Chair, Black Faculty and Academic Professionals Alliance
Whitney Hamilton, President, Women of Color
Professor Dianne Harris, Director, Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities
Professor Ronald L. Jackson, II, Head, Department of African American Studies
Rory G. James, Director, Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center
Veronica M. Kann, Assistant Director, La Casa Cultural Latina
Tony Laing, President, Black Graduate Student Association
Professor Isabel Molina, Director, Latina/Latino Studies Program
Pat Morey, Director, Women’s Resources Center
Leslie Morrow, Director, LGBT Resource Center
Professor Chantal Nadeau, Director, Gender and Women’s Studies Program
Professor Lisa Nakamura, Director, Asian American Studies Program
Ben Rothschild, Undergraduate‐Graduate Alliance
Stephanie Seawell, Co‐President, Gradate Employees Organization
Professor Siobhan Somerville, Co‐Chair, LGBT Advisory Committee
Regina Mosley Stevenson, Academic Professional Co‐Chair, Black Faculty and Academic Professionals Alliance
Katie Walkiewicz, Co‐President, Graduate Employees Organization
Professor Robert Warrior, Director, American Indian Studies Program
Amaziah Zuri, Chair, Students for a United Illinois

Robert Easter, Chancellor and Provost, University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign
Michael J. Hogan, President, University of Illinois
Joyce Tolliver, Chair, Senate Executive Committee, Academic Senate, University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign


Make A Comment


Rob Rushing said...

While I am in complete agreement with the "Open Letter"'s concerns about racial tension on campus, racial profiling, and the need to educate members of our community about racial stereotypes and their links to popular, and erroneous, ideas about crime, I don't agree with its conclusions about the Illini Alert regarding the Forbes Hall assault on November 8, and I have concerns about how the "Letter" represents both the crime and the police response to it. (I'll have to post this across two comments, since it's slightly too large.)

1) The "Open Letter" expresses a concern with racial profiling, but this seems somewhat misplaced. Racial profiling refers to the systematic presupposition of guilt on the part of a particular racial group. "Anyone who looks Latino is likely to be an illegal immigrant," or, "people who look 'Arabic' should be searched at airports because they are more likely to be terrorists." The logical fallacies at work in these forms of stereotyping are well known and fairly obvious. That said, however, the Forbes Hall assault represents something different: an actual crime was committed by a specific individual. The police know certain facts about the suspect: his sex, race, height, weight and build. These are not hypothetical characteristics of a potential and imaginary bogeyman, but an actual description of a concrete individual. One cannot help but notice that the "Open Letter" does not go on to cite the Illini Alert's description of the suspect's "non-puffy grey jacket," his "weathered boots," and "freckles or acne scars around temples and his ears--descriptions that also suggest that this is not a case of the generic "Unidentified Black Males" from The Sopranos who can be conveniently slotted in as the perpetrators of any and every crime. I am also concerned that the "Open Letter" distorts the wording of the original Alert (or at least, what is posted at the U of I police web site, which is what the "Letter" links to), which does not tell "every member of the campus community to call 911 if they see a 'black male, salt and pepper hair…'" In fact, the original Alert describes the individual, the crime, and the police response, before asking the recipient to "report any suspicious individuals by calling 911." In fact, every crime alert from the Chief of Police suggests that "suspicious individuals… should be reported to our regional dispatch center by calling 911." Will some irresponsible and racist people take this as a confirmation of their prejudices, or call 911 at the sight of every African American male near campus? Tragically, I don't doubt it, but I'm afraid those people are extremely clever at finding ways to confirm their prejudices, with or without the help of Illini Alerts.

Rob Rushing said...

2) Does this description--especially if read carelessly--fit a number of people who are hard-working, highly productive members of our campus community? Yes, but unfortunately so does any description. Should we have simply been told that the suspect was male, middle-aged and of a certain build? That, of course, would have simply left a much larger group of innocent individuals as possible suspects, and made any attempt to locate the suspect quickly--the reason for the use of the Illini Alert--less useful. The police have also released a sketch of a suspect in a recent "peeping Tom" case, and no doubt that sketch also resembles many people, but no one has expressed any concern about the many stereotypes it may perpetuate (about young men, about the kind of people who have mohawks, about economic class…). Obviously the factor that concerned the authors of the "Open Letter" is the race of the suspect (the Peeping Tom appears to be white), and I agree with them that race is special: for its continuing social, economic and political injustices, its history of being tied to sexuality and crime, and for many other reasons. I just think that one of our undergraduates had a big guy bust into her shower in the middle of the day, a guy who groped her and then hit her in the head--and I think our interest in catching the criminal and making sure it doesn't happen again trumps other concerns that appear to be ill-founded in this case.

3) Finally, the "Letter" seems to be particularly troubled by the use of the Illini Alert system. The use of the Alert system was, we are told, an "overreaction" to an "incident--such language seems to me, however, to belittle and diminish the gravity of the crime and the trauma it represents both to the victim, and to a significant portion of the campus population. We can agree that an overreaction to an incident would be the use of the Illini Alert system for burglary or vandalism, but its use for violent crimes, let alone violent sexual crimes, seems to me to be quite reasonable. I am prepared for the fact that we may disagree about this. My own take is that sexual violence directed against one individual produces a collective trauma that is in fact widespread, and we have had every indication since the Forbes Hall assault that the campus community as a whole has indeed been traumatized. More than by a bomb scare? Perhaps. Less than a tornado? Probably. The authors of the letter may legitimately disagree, but they should also recognize that this is not a clear-cut case of a "completely inappropriate and indeed reckless" warning, but an argument over degree.

Unit for Criticism said...

The authors of the Open Letter have asked us to clarify that when the Unit for Criticism first formatted this post we included a link to the November 8 mass email (which we have since removed). The Open Letter was referring primarily to the 11/8 text message. The text message used the abbreviated description that the Open Letter cites.

We apologize for the confusion.

Andrew said...

Wow, you professors are so far out-of-touch with reality it's absurd. The race of a suspect is a key identifying factor that will help ensure their apprehension--knowing if a suspect is white, black, latino, asian, or whatever instantly narrows down the search. Furthermore, the police are merely reporting the facts--there is no racial bias in these reports whatsoever. The fact of the matter is, black people commit crimes at a much higher rate than do white people. To try and cast this fact aside is to ignore reality.

This letter does nothing but discredit your own reputation. You professors really do live in a hole if you think that race has anything to do with these reports.

justin said...

yeah i disagree completely with you idiot professors, why do you think jails are overcrowded with black gang members. and i say this as a black person myself

Anonymous said...
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Unit for Criticism said...

Andrew and Justin, welcome to Kritik. I am Lauren Goodlad, one of the moderators of this blog and Director of the Unit for Criticism. Please note the policy on the top righthand side of your screen which asks that you debate arguments rather than make personal remarks and refrain from abusive commentary. Justin, this means that something like "idiot" won't pass muster here so I will ask you to rephrase. Anonymous, we also ask that all posts be "signed," even if only with a consistent moniker. Also your comment unfortunately violates the policy I've just described. I will delete it for now but I sincerely welcome you to rephrase if you care to present your arguments in serious fashion. Many thanks. (LG)

Jenn said...

I think this letter was very well written and I am glad that a more formal statement has been made about this issue. Though race is also included in crime-alerts when perpetrators are White, the truth is that such a description does not prompt most people in the community to become extra suspicious of every White individual that then passes them; unfortunately, I argue that our society, and thus the UofI campus, has not yet reached a point where the same can be said for Black individuals. Considering the diversity on campus, adding race to crime-alerts is more likely to increase hurtful race relations than it is to increase the likelihood of finding these perpetrators.

Whether or not to include race in crime-alerts may not be a straight-forward, cut and dry issue, but I think it is a good thing that we are raising questions about this, and I hope that it prompts respectful and productive discussions.