When our understanding of reality is filtered by a medium, do we really understand it?
This question should be asked as we consider how to weigh acts of violence and other crimes, not just in Hartford, but in broader society.
If the crime is not reported to the police, did it happen? If the news media does not report it to the public, did it happen? If any of those reports are inaccurate, what do we make of our perceptions of crime and safety?
Sex Offender Registry
Tom Condon recently slammed the online sex offender registry. The long-held assumption has been that those who molest, assault, and rape will repeat these behaviors, even after serving time in prison. But there are two things here that do not add up to equal the need for posting offenders’ profiles on a public site: (1) not all sex offenders actually injured another person, and (2) recidivism for convicted sex offenders is actually very low.
To clarify, there are people who were nabbed for public urination, which can qualify them for a spot on the list. When one views a profile, she is given legal language, which it is up to her to decode. It is difficult for non-lawyers to ascertain the exact nature of the crime. Looking at the list, one can not instantly determine who was convicted for a petty incident, and who actually assaulted a child. The result: everyone looks equally guilty of the worst crime imaginable.
While not practical or reassuring, the registry tells us that there are a disproportionate number of convicted sex offenders being sent to Hartford. Within two miles of basically any location in Hartford, there are 500+ registered sex offenders. To put this in perspective, there is a total of one person registered as a sex offender in Avon.
What does that data tell us?
It only tells us who was arrested and consequently convicted.
It does not tell us:
- who commits crimes but whose victims are too terrified or ashamed to file reports with the police
- who could commit crimes in the future
It says something about where services, like halfway houses, are made available to those exiting prison.
It might speak volumes about the disregard with which certain populations are treated. When a child molester is released into tony towns in Fairfield County, there is public outcry. In Hartford, where every residence, more or less, is in a school zone, there is just silence.
Selective Enforcement of the Law and Spotty Coverage from the News Media
There is silence from the news media about the ways certain classes of people endanger themselves, and at times, others.
In one week during February, three Trinity students were taken by EMS to Hartford Hospital for intoxication, including one had to be removed from her car. During the following week (2/12-18/12), there were additional alcohol incidents. Two were taken to Hartford Hospital. During one incident with an intoxicated student, a Campus Safety Office was slightly injured; instead of arresting this student, the matter was referred to the Dean of Students. In two other alcohol-related incidents that week, students were “combative” with EMS personnel, which is also an arrestable offense. It does not appear that they were arrested in either case. From reading the Hartford Police Department arrest log, it is clear that non-students do get arrested for such behavior, even if these individuals are in the same age range as the students.
Does treating students differently from non-students, even those in the same age group, send a message about what behaviors are tolerated from which sections of society?
Such reports on student safety are required by law to be posted by Campus Safety, but judging from the lack of coverage binge drinking at local institutions receives by the news media, one would never know this is public information or even a concern.
The Connection Between Binge Drinking and Violent Crime
The response to this is usually expressed through lack of logic. Some say that alcohol and drug abuse are not the same as violent crime. According to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice, over one-third of rape/sexual assault survivors report that the offender had been drinking when the crime was committed. The same report states that 27-47% of “all homicides and acts of purposeful injury are attributable to the use of alcohol.” Additionally, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence:
- Each year, more than 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
- 95% of all violent crime on college campuses involves the use of alcohol by the assailant, victim or both.
- 90% of acquaintance rape and sexual assault on college campuses involves the use of alcohol by the assailant, victim or both.
How do we — knowing that alcohol and substance abuse is strongly linked to violent crimes — continuously deny that these are not connected, that the comparisons can not be made? How do we refuse to acknowledge the extent of the problems that these substances help create when they are used inappropriately?
The people who are committing both crimes against property and crimes against people, do we all really believe that they are some Other whose addictions and behaviors emerged from nowhere?
Town versus Gown Division Increases
After reporting on the push for security measures — which sources at Trinity College say are being driven primarily by students’ parents — a mix of responses were left on this site, as well as with me directly. Some staff at Trinity seemed annoyed that the public had found out about a letter which was sent to thousands of individuals; it was unfit, for some reason, to be discussed by those in the community who would be affected by measures like beefed up fencing. There was a defensive response by some, but by and large, what I heard was dissatisfaction with how there is an increasing Town vs. Gown divide.
These messages of disappointment came from current and past students, as well as from staff and teaching faculty.
If the recent assault of a Trinity student turns out to have been definitely caused by non-students, this will no doubt add fuel to the cause for some — and already, before all facts are known, there has been an openly hostile response on Facebook – but the matter of crime is not black and white.
One recent Trinity graduate said during her time on campus, she knew of two students to falsely report crimes. Both claimed to have been mugged by a “local,” but what really happened was that they had lost their wallet and cell phone while intoxicated and embellished on the incident.
She said those were the only two she could confirm with certainty, but she had heard of other such cases.
How do we understand crime if we do not know the full story?
The Myth of Random Violence
Sometimes crime happens with no apparent reason, but if we act as if this is true most of the time, we are deceiving ourselves about the conditions of the world we live in.
There are times when those with mental illness experience hallucinations which provoke them to attack for what most of us would recognize as no logical reason.
But this is not the norm.
Positing that random violence is the norm is nothing more than fearmongering and agenda-pushing.
What Statistics Tell Us
The City of Hartford also posts its crime statistics and arrest log, but neither portray the full story. From these we can learn, vaguely, in what neighborhoods certain crimes occur, but we do not know on which streets, during what hours, and, most importantly, under what circumstances.
Without knowing the circumstances, how can we weigh the odds, especially in a time when news coverage is more concerned with speed and opinion than with investigative reporting? We hear about assaults and murders, get footage of crime scene tape, but are not routinely given important updates about whether or not the victim knew the assailant.
Few ask questions beyond “why me” and “why here.” Jumping to conclusions is easier. Knee-jerk reactions are easier.
Fear cuts away at reasoning like that.
What is Newsworthy?
A lack of information feeds fear.
Not every assault nor every murder is reported by the news media. We have to ask why some are prioritized, while others deemed not important, interesting, or newsworthy.
In the recent assault of a Trinity student, coverage has been spotty. An early notice from Campus Safety says that the identity of the approximately six attackers (student or non-student) was unclear. There are no physical descriptions released to the community so that we can be alert. Is it not the norm to tell the public who to watch out for? Besides the person attacked, there was at least one other witness.
A more recent notice, this time from the Dean of Students, indicates that the assailants were not Trinity students, but the victim and witness could not give a make or model of vehicle involved. The Dean of Students believes the motive was possible robbery.
Yet, in a profanity-laced message sent by a student in response to the Campus Safety email, this student, who describes himself as a friend of the victim, argues that this act was not robbery because the victim still had his wallet. This source does not seem entirely credible based on other material in the aggressive email. This student message expresses rage that the college enacted “draconian” policies in response to what he calls an “ALLEGED knifing incident,” and that Trinity College did not provide more than a brief email to explain the assault situation to students. The “knifing incident” to which he refers has been described to me by faculty and staff at Trinity has having been an attempted rape in a fraternity by a Trinity student. This piece of information was never mentioned by this student, nor by others who have sought to selectively downplay the seriousness of student-on-student crime, while lashing out against alleged non-student-on-student crime.
How do we understand crime when there is a penchant for demonizing an entire city’s population while ignoring the crimes within our own created communities? How do we understand reality when we refuse to see that among the criminals, there are heroes?
How do we understand reality when we refuse to understand all the facts?
How do we expect anything to improve when we would rather be accusing and othering segments of the population instead of finding deep and meaningful ways to solve serious issues?
Constructing walls — literal, or the kind created from stigmatizing those who have done their time — is no solution.