Will false allegations raise trust issues within the community?

Having grown up in and traveled to many major cities, I am not unaccustomed to varying degrees or types of theft. I attended a portion of my high school, and now college, career on an urban campus. I live in Collinwood, a neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side commonly described as “rough.”

Cleveland isn’t Gotham, but it’s not Oz either.

Cleveland, at no fault of its own, features higher population densities than other environments, a well known factor for increased crime rates. Knowing and being exposed to this has helped me learn to live mostly without fear.

As a result of where we choose to live, work and learn, theft can happen more often, and certainly more often than we think on college campuses.

According to an investigation done by The Columbus Dispatch and The Student Press Law Center in September of 2014, crime data being reported by colleges and universities nation-wide is so misleading it generates a dangerously false sense of security on campuses.

Jim Moore, the U.S. Department of Education official who manages and monitors crime stastics on campus, admits to the inaccuracy of statistics and points to loopholes in the 1991 Clery Act, which was instituted as a way to alert students to dangers on campus.

Those loopholes don’t just affect numbers for on-campus crimes though. Under-reporting about what is happening off campus property has many colleges publishing questionable numbers.

As an umbrella term, theft can include anything from armed robbery to a purse snatching. It can be as small as taking a USB drive left in the library.

What’s important to realize is that theft happens all the time and the severity doesn’t negate its importance.

What truly matters is how we react to it.

This is all to explain why I, even as a seasoned city-dweller with a strong awareness of crime realities, found myself unnerved after the Cleveland State police sent out an email alert on Sept. 14 stating that a student had been robbed of their laptop and bag in the Innerlink. Especially considering how consistently populated and monitored the area is.

This is perhaps why certain details in the initial email jumped out so much. The report didn’t mention the items being taken by force. And if it was a simple theft, most thieves want to avoid confrontation and being seen. This situation involved both.

I wasn’t the only person to raise these questions. Parth Patel, a Cleveland State University finance major, felt similarly.

“It seemed a bit odd, yeah,” Patel said. “It didn’t make sense that someone just walked up and took her laptop from her. I would have asked if the guy said anything to her. The police report didn’t mention that they talked.”

Two days later, on Sept. 16, the Cleveland State Campus Police notified students through a follow-up alert that the initial report was false. After reviewing footage of the location where the student claimed the incident occurred, the department determined that no such event had taken place. In the process, they were able to learn the true circumstances surrounding the reported robbery.

For many, the report that the crime was a false allegation restored feelings of safety. And according to Kathleen McNamara, professor and Chair of Cleveland State’s department of psychology, lying in situations such as this — while not socially acceptable — isn’t unusual behavior.

“I think that sometimes lying is viewed as some kind of pathological behavior, but it’s actually pretty normal and doesn’t really indicate anything other than avoidance,” McNamara said. “People lie, including young adolescents, mostly to get out of trouble.”

While McNamara’s explanation is clearly understandable, a false report in these circumstances has larger consequences.

In response to this incident, as well as several other recent crimes committed near or on campus, the university has increased its police presence. For many this is not an issue, but we attend a school in a city that is publically struggling with its negative community-police relationship.

Add the clash between the #BlackLivesMatter protesters and the police at the East 24th Street Healthline station this past summer, and for me, a more prevalent police force doesn’t immediately equal more safety. In some ways, having more officers increases the chance that certain situations may escalate in more dangerous ways.

Racial profiling also made its way into the issue fold, as the student who reported her laptop was stolen chose a very specific suspect description. That description has a unique and sordid history with false allegations. As a black student, I question the reasons behind someone choosing to offer up a black male as the non-existent perpetrator.

Not only does this raise major issues of trust about my peers for me, but circles back to an event last year which involved an unidentified individual defiling a campus stairwell with a swastika. These events, while not common, force me to question how accepting our campus community is and what efforts are being made to stop even the smallest microaggressions from occurring.

There is also the issue of how we use the campus alert system. With the hiring of the new campus police chief has come a growing effort to make the university’s spaces safer. It’s something I applaud, though the severity of this particular incident raises questions about the system’s intention and effectiveness.

Efforts like the campus alert system are set up to make individuals more aware and potentially prevent further crime, but it seems important that the alerts sent out through it should be verified to their fullest extent.

The decision to generate certain degrees of unease should be done with the utmost sensitivity and consideration, and certainly only when deemed absolutely necessary.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26, 2015 issue of The Cleveland Stater.

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