LUPD’s use of suspect descriptions brings controversy

An+LUPD+police+car+drives+down+Calhoun+St%2C+Wednesday%2C+Mar.+17.+LUPD%27s+suspect+descriptions+bring+controversy+as+many+argue+they+bring+racial+profiling.+Photo+credit%3A+Madeline+Taliancich

An LUPD police car drives down Calhoun St, Wednesday, Mar. 17. LUPD’s suspect descriptions bring controversy as many argue they bring racial profiling. Photo credit: Madeline Taliancich

Jacqueline Galli

  • Sex: Male
  • Race: Black
  • Height/Weight: Approximately 6 feet tall, slim build
  • Clothing: Grey tank top shirt and grey shorts

This is a suspect description released by the Loyola University Police Department in a timely warning notification last October that garnered criticism from some students and professors who perceive these descriptions as racial profiling.

Suspect descriptions are listed along with crime notifications when police are searching for the suspect of a crime. However, the often vague suspect descriptions can arguably describe a large portion of the student population on campus.

Timely warning notifications for crimes committed close to or within a college campus are a federal requirement, according to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure Act of 1998. However, nowhere in the act does it require suspect descriptions to be included.

Todd Warren, Loyola’s chief of police, is responsible for releasing the timely warning notifications many students, faculty, and staff see in their email inboxes. Warren said he hates the descriptions.

Warren said he attempts to put as much identifying information as he can get from victims in the descriptions. In some cases, it’s not much.

Chiara Procaccio, criminology junior, said descriptions like one released in October along with a timely warning notification which used vague modifiers such as “6 ft tall”, “Black” and “male” can cause more harm than good.

“While sometimes this isn’t necessarily the fault of LUPD, due to the fact that a lot of crimes happen quickly and victims can’t always remember details about their attackers due to shock, this description seems to almost encourage racial profiling because it’s so broad,” Procaccio said.

Laura Egan, senior director of programs for the Clery Center, said the Clery Center recommends using suspect descriptions only if they could lead to identifying a perpetrator.

While the Clery Act does not specify what information to include in a timely warning, The Clery Center believes it would benefit campus communities to include any information that could promote safety and prevent similar crimes, said Egan.

Procaccio said she understands the descriptions are meant to help people stay safe, but she argued they have a different effect.

“The suspect descriptions are used to help people be more aware, but because they are so general, they don’t actually help people stay safe because these descriptions more or less force people to be on the lookout for anyone and everyone, and that’s impossible to do,” Procaccio said.

In the case of the repeated sexual assaults at The Boot in the fall of 2019, Warren said the suspect description in that case helped some victims come forward. The description also connected all the cases to each other.

However even in those cases, nobody was charged, nor did anyone go to trial.

Lisa Collins, assistant professor and interim director for the School of Communication and Design with 15 years of newsroom experience, said newsrooms have also been taking a closer look at how they present suspect descriptions.

“Not every newsroom is doing it, but the good ones are,” Collins said.

One such newsroom that Collins referenced was ABC News 5 in Cleveland.

In an article published by ABC News 5, digital director Joe Donatelli said, “if a description is vague, and it could literally describe thousands or millions of people, we don’t share it.”

In a research study done by members of the communications department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in 2019, a correlation was shown between high volumes of media consumption and racial stereotyping.