A Difficult “Peace”

This is a difficult piece to write.  It’s difficult because in response to concerns and criticisms I have received following a recent Crime Warning my department issued — this written offering attempts to explain our process in the interest of providing clarity and creating understanding without communicating a defensiveness that I do not feel or intend to convey.  It’s difficult because it is written with the hope and desire to invite conversation not impede it, yet I know that in our current climate even in the face of invited questioning and justified demands for assurances of accountability, my words – no matter how well-intended – will not meet with everyone’s approval.  But most of all, this is a difficult piece to write because the concerns that have been raised about the Crime Warning are legitimate and serve as a painful but valuable reminder of the ways in which police have historically failed and in some ways continue to fail our communities of color.

For those of you who may not know, three weeks ago the UWPD issued a Crime Warning to alert our campus community of two African American burglary suspects at large.  Crime Warnings are required under the Clery Act and in the past two years, the UWPD has issued 25 such timely alerts.  Several things were unique about the Crime Warning sent on February 27, but what caught many people’s attention, was that this warning included photographs of the suspects.  Because Crime Warnings are sent very closely following a particular crime to quickly alert our community of an existing or ongoing safety threat, it isn’t often that we have a lot of detailed information at the time of the release.  Detailed suspect descriptions for these warnings are rare, and photos are even rarer.  So rare, in fact, that since 2015 there has only been one other incident for which we had photos available. In that case, the decision was made, as is allowable within federal law, not to include the suspect photo in the warning because doing so would’ve compromised the pending law enforcement investigation. The inclusion of suspect photos in this case has raised concern among many who point to questions of overt or implicit bias in the decision, as well as questions about our level of awareness and sensitivity to the social backdrop against which this warning was issued – a backdrop in which Black lives are increasingly the target of hate attacks and threats of violence.

I understand that sending these campus-wide alerts can create damaging unintended consequences for our communities of color, particularly African American men. The UWPD is sensitive to this potential impact and whenever a Crime Warning is sent, we endeavor to balance our duty to protect members of our community from potential crime victimization, with our desire not to unduly reinforce or perpetuate negative stereotypes. I also understand that by including the suspect photos in the issuance of this particular warning, we simultaneously promoted the safety of our overall community while creating a potential safety concern for African American men in our community who are too often unfairly targeted/profiled as criminals. Therein lies the dilemma.

Many of our guiding principles when issuing a warning have been developed through an established Crime Warning Workgroup consisting of various campus administrators, and do include a consideration of the impact that issuing these warnings may have on our communities of color.  For example, we will not include a suspect description if the only description we have is limited to race and sex.  It is our belief that such a general description does little if anything to effectively warn and protect the community and could do more damage to our people of color in certain instances.  This is a change we made in 2015 following community feedback and one that I think demonstrates our willingness to work to strike an appropriate balance.

As difficult as these conversations can be, I welcome opportunities to further review and respond to concerns about decisions made and actions taken, particularly when they call into question matters of consistency, fairness, and disparate impact.  I have engaged in several conversations, both internally and externally, over the past few weeks. From these discussions, I have identified the following ways that we will work to improve our Crime Warning process:

  • Ensure representation from a person(s) of color on the ad hoc Crime Warning Workgroup mentioned earlier who has demonstrated cultural competency and a capacity for critical thinking
  • In addition to our existing practice of consultation with the Dean of Students, and University Communications, build into our process consultation with the Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer prior to the issuance of Crime Warnings that are likely to impact communities of color
  • Review our guidelines for including photographs of suspects and communicate the process to our community
  • Provide additional cultural competency training for UWPD managers

As Chief of this department, I am committed to engaging our community and entering into constructive conversations around complex issues such as these with an open mind and an open heart.  I am willing to listen, to acknowledge when missteps occur and work to address them, and to facilitate a process of continuous feedback and improvement that is shaped by a responsiveness to community expectations.  And while we won’t always agree on specific decisions made, I believe it is important to keep talking, learning, and working together to build trust and promote safety for all members of our community.