On Tuesday, September 21, 2021, over 50,000 New York University students’ phones buzzed at the same time. An identical notification appeared on their screens: “Safety Alert—Shots Fired.” A few minutes later, their phones buzzed a second time with an update: A shooting incident had taken place near the NYU Metrotech campus in Brooklyn, and a stray bullet hit an NYU student in the arm.
NYU’s safety notifications, and others like them at universities across the country, are known as “Timely Warning” notices. Students cannot unsubscribe from these warnings; they are mandated by federal law by the Clery Act of 1990, named after Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her university halls in Pennsylvania.
The law requires that all accredited universities collect statistics and records of specific categories of crimes on campus, and asks campus officials to assess whether there is a “serious or ongoing threat to the campus community” in real-time as a crime or emergency unfolds. If so, they must issue a Timely Warning to all staff and students. Failure to comply may result in universities’ being fined up to almost $60,000. The robust enforcement mechanism and hefty fines incentivize careful compliance, supposedly rendering college campuses more secure environments.
Proponents consider the Clery Act a seminal piece of legislation in improving safety and transparency on university campuses. “If you do not know what is happening on the campus, parents cannot make an evaluation as to where they want to send their children to school,” said then-Senator Arlen Specter in a 2006 Senate oversight hearing. Timely Warning Notices provide community members with the news they need to keep themselves safe and respond appropriately when an emergency or crime occurs, explained Fountain Walker, vice president for global campus safety at NYU, in an e-mail. “Generally speaking, we think this system of communications is highly effective.”
But as early as 1995, the National Institute of Justice argued that the Clery Act was largely symbolic, as the numbers on which institutions and governments rely to compile statistics depend on whether victims report the crime in question. The NIJ estimates that only about 25 percent of on-campus crimes are reported to a police agency. Timely Warnings follow that selective pattern, said Dr. Jennifer Wesely of the University of North Florida, and can consequently misrepresent the realities of criminality on campus.
“I don’t think that campus crime alerts are necessarily conveying an accurate lens through which we can look at the reality of crime occurring, but it does nonetheless alert the campus community in a way that is necessary,” said Wesely.
At NYU, Timely Warnings typically include the exact time and location of the crime, a detailed description of what happened, and a description of the perpetrator. In the case of the September 21 shooting, NYU described the suspect as having “a dark complexion, a thin build, was 16 to 18 years old, around 5＇8＂ or 5＇9＂ in height and was wearing a black sweatshirt with an orange-and-yellow smiley face, with crossed-out eyes, grey sweatpants, and black sneakers.”
Almost five months later, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced the indictment of 17-year-old Giovanni Bennett in relation to the shooting. The NYU safety notification did not play a major role in catching Bennett; NYPD identified the suspect based on surveillance footage of the scene.
Another notification from August 2021 described a potential crime in Washington Square Park. “The victim, an NYU student, reported that while [they were] sitting on a bench, eating lunch, a woman approached…and asked for money. After the victim declined twice, the suspect grabbed the victim’s phone from their hands. The victim grabbed the phone back. The suspect then lunged at the victim at which time the victim left the park to report the incident; the victim did not report any injuries and did not report the involvement of any weapons.”
According to Wesley, this level of detail in an alert can be problematic. The more one allows for the narrative version of the crime, the more opportunity there is for the writers to input personal biases. “What information would help you to catch the criminal and identify the crime that occurred? I think that’s the information that needs to be in a campus alert. Everything else, not relevant,” said Dr. Elizabeth Brown, who co-authored a paper on Timely Warnings with Wesely.
Flore Belenger, an NYU student, agrees with Brown’s assessment on the dangers of overly detailed notifications. Cautioning that many people fit the often imprecise descriptions, she said students can grow fearful of anyone who looks vaguely out of the ordinary and with the same characteristic as mentioned in the relevant e-mail or text.
A 2019 study by Thomas Jefferson University found that Timely Warnings can have many unintended effects, like portraying a given campus as an unsafe environment, when in fact risks are small. Other risks include the ones addressed by Wesely and Brown, namely that messages can reinforce racial stereotypes, encourage victim-blaming, impede law enforcement, and potentially reveal private information about victims.
To avoid these problems, some universities have adjusted the wording and content of crime notifications. At Brown University, for example, the Department of Public Safety stopped using race as an identifying factor in descriptions of suspects. This was a controversial move: While racial profiling on campus is a legitimate concern, race can also be one of the many physical attributes that helps students identify suspects. The same contradictions emerge in initiatives to “inform” or “warn” the public about potential dangers outside campus environments. The Citizen app, for example, which sends users real-time, location-based safety alerts based on 911 calls and user reports, has been criticized for promoting vigilantism, unnecessary panic, and racial profiling.
According to Belenger, these problems outweigh any potential benefits. As a woman living alone, she is already careful not to take the subway at night or play music too loudly. Such measures, she said, are unfortunately part of life as a woman in big cities; she used to be equally careful in her hometown of Brussels, Belgium, before moving to New York. She argues that Timely Warnings put too high a burden on victims: “They kind of made me feel mad at NYU, for making me feel less, less safe in the city.”
Though cognizant that the Timely Warning notifications may lead to increased fearfulness and anxiety, Wesely still thinks the alerts have potential. When used appropriately—identifying the crime or offense by name, using clear language and focusing on facts rather than superfluous or editorialized context—she says that Timely Warnings could make students more aware of their surroundings, and encourage them to take necessary precautions. “An alert is going to go out, no matter what,” she said. “It may not make them feel safer, but it may make them be safer now.”