Following the recent string of sexual assaults, public safety has been a crucial concern for residents and students in the university community. An informed partnership between law enforcement and the media has helped in both reporting and preventing these types of attacks. Unfortunately, this partnership has faltered, spurring harm and distrust among residents and students.
On Sunday, Aug. 29, a sexual assault was reported in the Burleith neighborhood. According to the police report, the assault occurred when an unidentified man removed an air conditioner from a front window, climbed through the makeshift entryway and subsequently raped the woman sleeping inside.
The following Tuesday, Metropolitan Police Department Lieutenant John Hedgecock was quoted by THE HOYA as saying, “This [sexual assault] was a preventable crime. Students have to lock their doors and protect themselves by staying in groups.” The Department of Public Safety also released a statement in response to this assault, stating that “Such incidents as these are a stark reminder to our students, faculty and staff that we all must follow the best practices in personal safety and to report suspicious activity to DPS.”
Though the statements suggest the victim’s safety precautions were insufficient, the implications could not be farther from the truth. The perpetrator did not enter the residence through a carelessly unlocked door or a cracked window. Instead, he unexpectedly removed a heavy air conditioner from the first floor. The crime was hardly “preventable,” as Hedgecock said.
These comments demonstrate a flaw in the role of law enforcement as an informer to the public. Though MPD and DPS did not intend to misrepresent the truth, their statements were negligent and potentially harmful to the community. Law enforcement, the only trustworthy source on the nature of the incident, failed to mention the seriousness of the break-in. (At the time the comments were published, the full police report was unavailable to the public.)
Campus media rely on MPD and DPS for accurate descriptions of crime, and students rely on campus media sources as their intermediary between administrators and law enforcement. In their position, officials must take extra care to properly represent the facts in their statements, as such statements are taken on authority.
PD and DPS may have been negligent in their statements to the news media and to students, but their intentions were and always have been for the safety of the community. Indeed, DPS’s familiar call for locked doors and travel in packs is now a mantra. But even if the precautions are effective in most instances, preparation only does so much. The vulnerability of students both on and off campus should not be brushed under the rug. If anything, law enforcement should be frank with students so that they can be as vigilant as possible in the future.