VCU Removes Suspect Descriptions from Email Crime Alerts

The change was made to deter the development of negative racial stereotypes.

Just as other colleges and universities have struggled with balancing the issue of using racial descriptors in timely warnings (crime alerts), Virginia Commonwealth University has been no different, until now.

After working with VCU’s Wilder School of Government to conduct VCU-specific research on the topic, VCU Police Chief John Venuti believes he has found a balance between providing timely information on crimes and reducing the negative stereotypes against certain groups of individuals.

Starting this spring, the university’s police and public affairs staff are no longer including a racial descriptor of suspects in timely warnings (crime alerts) delivered via e-mail. While a full description will still be posted to the university’s public safety page,, emails will instead have a hyperlink to the site with the following notation: For a full description of the suspect/s visit

“At VCU, the community’s safety is of paramount importance,” Venuti says. “There could be situations which pose a significant risk to public safety in which racial inclusion – and all other available descriptors – would be critically important for community members to be aware of so they could take personal safety measures.”

As a matter of practice, VCU police leaders issue text message alerts for incidents that are active, life-threatening and require immediate action by people on either of VCU’s Richmond campuses.

Subsequent case information is routinely posted on Police issue follow-up e-mails for more serious crimes, but there is typically a delay in email distribution due to the volume of more than 50,000 emails filtering through VCU’s email system.

Using a hyperlink notation in lieu of a full description was one of the main recommendations that emerged from a report by Dr. William Pelfrey Jr. in the Wilder School. Pelfrey was the principal investigator for a January 2016 mixed method report, “Examining the Role of Demographics in Campus Crime Alerts – Implications and Recommendations for the VCU Police Department.”

Venuti requested the research following years of conversations with students, faculty and staff members about suspect descriptions in crime alerts.

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In a May 2014 study by Mark L. Johnson (a criminal justice graduate student), VCU was benchmarked with 30 other institutions of higher education, all of which included race in timely warnings (crime alerts). Johnson found VCU’s practice of including racial descriptors was not only justified, but an accepted practice nationwide that met Clery Act requirements. All of the examples of timely warnings in a Department of Education handbook include race as a descriptor.

As conversations with historically underrepresented groups continued, however, Venuti wanted to consider alternative modes in presenting racial descriptors. He sought a better way to include a description without traditional verbiage such as, “white, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.”

His first idea for Pelfrey was to consider how to use three skin color descriptions, “light, medium and dark.” It was quickly determined that those three descriptors could be highly subjective based on witness reports.

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About the Author


Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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