Several students have raised concerns about how long it takes the Duke University Police Department to issue DukeAlerts.

Through the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, Duke is required to issue timely warnings when certain types of crimes are deemed to be an immediate threat to the safety of those on campus. The purpose of these timely warnings, according to the Clery Act, is to give students time to protect themselves from an ongoing threat. 

Some crime responses may be delayed or may not receive a DukeAlert at all because of ambiguity in what the law requires, experts say. 

The last DukeAlert was issued Wednesday at approximately 11:10 p.m. for a robbery that occurred at 10:14 p.m., in which a delivery driver was robbed at knifepoint before the suspect began running toward Anderson Street. The nearly 50-minute gap between the crime and the DukeAlert led junior Sean Gilbert to question DUPD’s protocols on a Fix My Campus post—which has more than 300 reactions—the next morning.

Gilbert told The Chronicle that he called DUPD immediately after the robbery, which happened outside his apartment, and told them what happened at about 10:16 p.m. After asking officers repeatedly whether a DukeAlert was going to be released, it was finally sent out 50 minutes later, he said.

“It took DUPD 50 whole minutes to notify campus a man outside our community had held up someone just feet from a residential community and was still somewhere on the loose. Meanwhile, people are walking between apartments and walking alone through the gardens completely unaware of the security threat—when DUPD had the choice to notify us,” he wrote in the Facebook post. “What good is a campus alert 50 minutes after the fact?”

This is not the first time a DukeAlert has been sent out for an on-campus robbery, and they have often been issued an hour after the initial incident. In January, a DukeAlert was sent out at 2:10 a.m. for an armed robbery that occurred at approximately 1:00 a.m. In October 2015, the Duke community was informed at approximately 8:00 a.m. about a robbery in a Central Campus apartment at about 6:30 a.m., although no weapons were involved. In July 2015, it took approximately 38 minutes for a DukeAlert to be sent out after an armed robbery at about 1:40 a.m. in the morning.

Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh wrote in an email that the University’s goal is always “to provide information to the Duke community as quickly as possible.” However, a “host of variables” including getting correct information and ensuring victims’ safety must be taken into account before a DukeAlert can be sent out, he wrote.

“If that evaluation determines the incident represents a potential ongoing threat, then the DukeALERT is sent out,” Cavanaugh wrote.

The Chronicle spoke to several experts about the Clery Act, and they were divided about whether 50 minutes was an unreasonable amount of time. All of them noted, however, that the Clery Act leaves a great deal of discretion to universities on what and how to report.

What is timely?

Official guidance on what constitutes “timely” according to the Clery Act is sparse, said Frank LaMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. The government’s guide to Clery Act compliance also does not give a concrete definition of what “timely” entails.

It does say, however, that a warning should be issued as soon as “pertinent information is available,” even if police do not yet have all the facts. The discretion built into the law is by design, said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, and for good reason.

Police have to look at if the crime was a single incident or an ongoing risk and must consider if an alert will end up identifying the victim or if it will actually end up impeding the investigation, she explained.

The Department of Education has been hesitant to sanction universities for violations of the Clery Act, in fear of making it difficult for police to make important judgment calls, LaMonte said. For example, Robin Hattersley, executive editor of CampusSafety magazine, said that she has heard complaints of both “under” and “over-reporting,” which universities have to juggle.

Having to verify potentially inaccurate reports can also delay a DukeAlert, Hattersley said, although Cavanaugh did not indicate to The Chronicle that this was the case in this most recent incident.

Several experts agreed that 50 minutes does not seem unreasonable for this type of incident. Jonathan Jones, a lecturer at Elon University, said police were likely focused on dealing with the situation itself and that a 50-minute delay does not seem “particularly problematic,” especially if no one was injured.

If someone had been injured, he said, 50 minutes probably would have been too long.

LaMonte agreed, noting that an hour lag would not be extreme enough to be considered a violation of the Clery Act, nor is it an uncommon delay. He added it would have been better to send it out out sooner, however. 

For Rebecca Bach, an associate professor of the practice in sociology who has done research into the Clery Act, the delay was “definitely not in the spirit of the law.” Daniel Swinton, managing partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, said the same.

Junior Rohan Mehrotra said that sending out a DukeAlert 50 minutes later defeats the purpose of a warning, because students cannot lock their doors or take precautionary measures that late. 

All experts agreed it is hard to judge whether Duke’s response time was too slow without knowing all the details about what information DUPD actually had.

“Would I like it to be faster? Sure,” Swinton said. “Does it mean they weren’t compliant with Clery? No, because we don’t have all the details.”

In his email to The Chronicle, Cavanaugh did not disclose what factors might have led to the delay, or what information DUPD was relying upon in making its decision.

Too much discretion?

Bach argued that the current version of the Clery Act allows universities too much discretion, and that her research has shown that Clery Act crimes are typically underreported, especially in cases involving sexual assault.

“Part of the problem is that the reporting of the crimes and the sending of the alerts are being made by institutions for whom it is in their benefit to project an image of safety,” she said. “You have people who benefit from presenting an image of safety in charge of letting people know when things are unsafe. That’s an inherent problem with the Clery Act.”

In her view, the act should be amended to require that all Clery crimes get an alert, instead of giving universities discretion as to what warrants an alert.

Hattersley, however, noted that strict requirements might not be particularly productive. She explained that the initial drafting of the Clery Act included a provision stating that alerts had to be sent within 30 minutes, but that this was scrapped because of how fact-specific any given crime inherently is. Legislators did not want to take away universities’ ability to make a judgment call.

Bach argued though that a 30-minute gap would be beneficial. Instead of advocating for changes in the law itself, Swinton said that university policies nationwide are often highly centralized, and that he advises his clients to decentralize the alert system.

According to the Duke Annual Clery Campus Security Report, “the Chief of Police or a designee and the Vice President for Administration determine if a timely warning is necessary.”

If students remain concerned about DukeAlerts and how quickly they are sent out, Bach said student government could play a big role in negotiating with administrators.

“I think if they apply some pressure in the form of protest of some sort, and possibly go through [Duke Student Government], it may at least result in a more thorough discussion of the process and how it can be streamlined,” she said.

Adam Beyer and Likhitha Butchireddygari contributed reporting.