A dorm room intrusion and the ambiguous DukeALERT that followed have sparked fresh concerns about campus security.
Shortly before 9 p.m. last Friday, Duke community members received a DukeALERT indicating that a “suspicious person” was found in a West Campus dorm room. Details later emerged that the incident occurred in Gamma Phi Beta sorority's section in Edens 3A.
John Dailey, chief of the Duke University Police Department, wrote in an email that a criminal investigation is still ongoing. However, some students expressed frustrations about the nature of the DukeALERT, as well as the University’s handling of the situation.
“They are always very ambiguous about things,” said sophomore Joseph Hsiung. “I feel like that’s a problem because the whole point of DukeALERTs is to ensure the safety of the students.”
Dailey wrote that “the goal of a DukeALERT Timely Warning is the prevention of a similar crime.”
But though the DukeALERT was issued at about 8:53 p.m., the incident had been reported to DUPD at 7:17 p.m, according to the Duke Community Safety Report for the week of Sept. 25 to Oct. 1. This means that the “timely warning” was not issued until more than 1.5 hours after DUPD was alerted of the incident.
Junior William Tong called this delay “unbelievable” and the DukeALERT consequently “useless.”
“It basically gives the suspect a window in which he/she can do anything since students are not alerted [until] 1.5 hours later,” he wrote in an email.
In an email on the day of the incident, Dailey told The Chronicle that “nothing was taken” by the intruder. However, Gamma Phi Beta residents told Hsiung—who also lives in Edens 3A—that "little things" were taken.
The DukeALERT itself—which described the subject as an approximately 30-year-old male between 6 feet and 6 feet 5, with “medium complexion” and a short buzz cut—was also inaccurate, contended sophomore Robin Yeh in a post on the Fix My Campus Facebook group.
“[The affected student] was misquoted in that she described the man as ‘light skin’ and they reported him as ‘medium complexion,’” she wrote in her Sunday post, which has since received more than 110 reactions.
Some students also criticized DUPD for their ambiguity in using the term “medium complexion” in the first place. Tong wrote that differentiating complexion as light, medium and dark was “just not very helpful.”
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“I don’t know if this is a political correctness thing, but if it [is], it’s stupid,” he wrote. “There’s nothing wrong with saying the suspect was white/yellow/brown/black and so on. Medium complexion is just not very clear and I don’t think any U.S. emergency service would use those vague terms, so why should we?”
Race and clothes worn are the best way to identify a person, Tong wrote, noting that information such as height is essentially pointless “unless this suspect is a dwarf or Hagrid.”
Beyond the ambiguity in characterizing the subject, some students also expressed their frustrations with the ambiguity of the location.
“The [DukeALERT] was pretty much useless,” wrote senior William Rollins in a comment on the Fix My Campus post. “There are many dorms on West, so ya gotta be a bit more specific than ‘West Campus dorm.’”
Tong echoed these sentiments, noting that if DUPD had provided more precise information, students nearby could have been “vigilant of the surroundings” to potentially spot the suspect.
“West Campus is massive and I don’t understand why they cannot just reveal the fact that it occurred in Edens,” he wrote. “They have that information when it was reported to them and clarity is always good.”
DukeALERTs are issued with attention paid to preventing harm towards the victim and the investigation, Dailey wrote.
“In the DukeALERT message we work to balance [maintaining] victim privacy (a specific residential location may undo that), provide objective descriptors (for example, specific clothing items and color, vehicles), suggest crime prevention tips and have no negative impact on the investigation,” he wrote.
However, some students said that the DukeALERT should also take into account another factor. Hsiung said that though Duke often tries to “generalize things,” their practices are harmful to Duke students.
“Not only are you doing the opposite of preventing it from becoming a larger than needed situation, you’re actually just causing a greater number of people stress because they don't know where it is, if he’s still out there or anything like that,” he said.
‘The least we could do’
“Why the hell don’t we have more security cameras in public areas?” Tong asked.
In her post, Yeh similarly argued that security cameras could be a “simple solution” to identify the subject’s face or the license plate of his car.
“It can’t be a cost issue because Duke is loaded and it can’t be a legal issue because it’s permissible to monitor public areas,” Tong wrote. “The least we could do is try to monitor entrances and places where DukeCard swipes are necessary so things like this don’t happen.”
The University previously installed security cameras in East Campus residence halls, wrote Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, in an April email.
Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration, also noted in April that Central Campus had been equipped with security cameras. However, cameras on Central are not necessarily located in residential apartment complexes, said Joe Gonzalez, interim assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life.
Six months later, security cameras have still not been implemented on West Campus residence halls pending “decisions on locations and appropriate technology,” Moneta confirmed in an email. As of yet, Gonzalez said Duke does not have a set start date for installation.
“Unfortunately, retrofitting a network of cameras to accommodate many doors in an environment not originally designed to include security cameras took more planning that we would have preferred,” Moneta wrote. “But, they will be installed in the near future.”
Upon being asked to be more specific about the “near future,” Moneta wrote that he expected security cameras to be installed no later than the Spring semester. He also noted that cameras would only be installed by dorm entrances and exits.
Beyond the lack of security cameras, Hsiung also expressed his concerns about general security in Edens. He wrote a comment on Yeh’s Fix My Campus post, highlighting a welcome email from August in which Shelvis Ponds, residence coordinator for Edens Quad, compared the dorm to the biblical Garden of Edens.
“Edens is one of Duke’s best kept secrets, and I am certain that you are well on your way of finding all the treasures and character in our garden,” Ponds—who identified himself in the email as “head horticulturalist”—wrote.
Hsiung indicated his concern for students’ safety, writing that the “suspicious person shouldn't be a representative ‘character’ in what I call home.”
However, in the aftermath of the incident, Edens residents received no communication from their residence coordinator or any other members of HRL.
Ponds directed The Chronicle’s request for comment to Gonzalez.
“It's kind of scary and frustrating, and I feel like as an RC, you should say something about it,” Hsiung said. “In the beginning of the year, he said this is like the Garden of Edens, and how wonderful everything is. But then sketchy things like this happen.”