Off-Campus Incidents Aren’t Always Reported
Originally published May 11, 2008 at www.timesunion.com
By MARC PARRY
ALBANY — The footsteps behind her sounded like a jogger. Then Erica Quinn felt a hand grab her throat.
Her boyfriend, University at Albany senior Dariusz Ulicki, felt something worse: a gun jammed into his mouth. He bled. His lips swelled. And at 6:30 p.m. one Sunday last year, Ulicki became yet another student whose name would appear as a victim in an Albany police report.
At least 65 UAlbany students were victims of off-campus robberies reported to city police between mid-2002 and mid-2007, according to a university report obtained by the Times Union under the Freedom of Information Law. The crimes, like the attempted robbery of Ulicki and Quinn off Quail Street, often involved weapons or violence. And they often took place in the so-called “student ghetto” and its surrounding streets, a run-down area where naive kids can make easy prey.
The UAlbany study shows the 17,000-student SUNY school also experienced an alarming uptick in off-campus sexual assaults against its students from mid-2005 to mid-2007, with eight reported during that period. The analysis, based on city police data provided to the university, counts no sexual assaults reported the three prior years. In one 2005 knifepoint attack, a 16-year-old broke into a student’s South Lake Avenue apartment, woke her up and raped her.
That rape made headlines. But if you’re a UAlbany student or parent, chances are you wouldn’t know about many other crimes. Most don’t appear in the data UAlbany reports to the federal government. Records show many failed to trigger e-mail alerts to students.
A Times Union investigation of the UAlbany off-campus crime problem spotlights a gap in the federal law that forces colleges nationwide to disclose crime data. That law, the Clery Act, holds schools accountable only for campuses, noncampus buildings such as fraternity houses, and adjacent public property like sidewalks.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 93 percent of violent crimes against college students occurred off campus. But even if students are repeatedly robbed and assaulted blocks from the college, a school has no legal obligation to report the crimes or warn students.
Advocates urge colleges to alert students anyway. And they often do, said S. Daniel Carter of the nonprofit Security on Campus.
“We certainly comply with Clery to the letter,” said UAlbany Police Chief J. Frank Wiley. “We will at times go beyond Clery, when the circumstances warrant.”
Clery provides the only nationwide crime accountability for colleges. That’s key for anyone who wants information about private schools, which are not subject to open records laws in New York.
Even official Clery statistics can camouflage the extent of known crime. Take robberies. Education Department data show UAlbany reported a total of 11 for the three most recent years available – and that’s counting seven on campus. Internally, UAlbany analyzes much broader off-campus crime trends – and many more robberies – in regular studies based on city police data, records show.
As of Friday, the last such report posted on the UAlbany police Web was 5 years old.
“Who exactly are they working for, then?” asked senior Amanda May Whistle, 21, editor of the Albany Student Press newspaper. “I would think this would be for me and for the students who live here and need to know this information so that they can make good choices. … These are societal problems that should not be swept under the rug.”
Recent campus violence has focused national attention on student safety and crime reporting. There’s even a new list: the Reader’s Digest Campus Crime Rankings.
“No one wants to be the college that warned its students too late,” Sara Lipka, who covers campus crime issues for the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote in an e-mail. “But if administrators feel inclined to send notifications more often, they also worry that students will start to see them as spam.”
Albany, a city of 94,000 residents, has a half-dozen colleges that serve some 25,000 students. Thousands live and party in an urban area that sprawls beyond the Pine Hills core of student streets like Hudson Avenue, where you’ll find doors painted UAlbany purple and gold.
People who know the area describe it as a changing district with shifting borders and fewer students. The drop-off may stem from construction of UAlbany’s 1,200-bed, pumpkin-colored student apartment complex on the fringes of the uptown campus.
These days, students who live off-campus in parts of Albany are mingling with new neighbors: Unemployed people. Drug addicts. Felons. It’s a trend one neighborhood community leader who asked not to be named called “troubling.”
Look at the Quail Street Market. Peter Sivaslian, a clerk, said that when a customer walks out, another will sometimes tell him, “That’s a crackhead.” People used to order subs and potato salad to pick up after work. Hot items these days, he said, are beer and fruit-flavored cigars that smokers hollow out and fill with pot.
Guillermo Martinez, legislative director for Assemblyman Peter Rivera, recalled what he repeatedly heard when knocking on doors to register voters nearby: “I can’t register. I’m a felon.”
“The places where students go to socialize are now in the heart of an area that is really being beaten up by social ills,” said the UAlbany alumnus and 20-year city resident.
Albany Police Chief James Tuffey painted a different picture: a return of some middle-class stability, a “regentrification” of Pine Hills, and a city getting tough with landlords. He pointed to a new program – “Block by Block” – that targets blight, plus a crackdown on garbage violations.
“That’s the quality of life that we’re going to turn around in the city as a whole,” Tuffey said. “And the landlords know it’s coming. The least desirable people – we hope they’re going to not rent to them.”
Tuffey praised the majority of students as “good kids,” but his agency’s records document the underside of college life: Pot. Cocaine. Heroin. Urinating on the police station. Oral sex in public.
“The freshman bars” is how UAlbany junior Carly Laniado, who got mugged on Myrtle Avenue, labeled some student watering holes, such as Pauly’s. The grimy Central Avenue haunt offered 25-cent Busch Light drafts on Tuesday nights. The state suspended its license in November after most patrons in a raid were found to be under 21.
One 21-year-old was so drunk coming out of Envy Lounge in November that he got into a car he thought was a taxi only to get slashed in the neck, according to a police report. Thieves dumped him on Kent Street after stealing his $600 iPhone and a $2,000 watch.
An extreme example? Maybe. But it shows how city streets can serve up easy targets for criminals: students out late and sometimes so drunk they move like zombies from “Night of the Living Dead.”
A Times Union FOIL request yielded three university off-campus crime studies and more than 500 pages of city police reports involving UAlbany students. The request also sought crime alerts e-mailed to students living off-campus, but UAlbany replied that alerts go to all students and directed the newspaper to an archive on its police Web site.
For 2006-07, when the university’s own internal statistics show at least 11 students reported being robbed off-campus in Albany, only two alerts about off-campus incidents appear on the site. UAlbany posted those after the newspaper asked for the alerts in December.
Neither Wiley nor other UAlbany officials would discuss the circumstances under which they decide not to issue alerts about off-campus crimes.
University officials repeated – eight times – during an interview that alerts go out when warranted. Asked to define “warranted,” they pointed to a policy on the UAlbany Web site. It says, among other things, that a timely warning will be issued when a situation comes up, on or off campus, that officials deem “an ongoing or continuing threat to the campus population.”
“Safety notices go out in every single instance where we identify that there’s a good chance that we can impact that particular incident,” said University Police Inspector Aran Mull.
The university’s off-campus crime reports are available upon request, Mull said. Wiley argued that concerns about the Clery law should not be directed to UAlbany.
Kids roam, Mull said.
“We know that our students live and travel and go to those areas (Saratoga, Colonie, Troy) for entertainment purposes,” Mull said. “So there comes a point where we have to set a standard. And the federal government did.”
The total number of UAlbany student crime victims, which includes violent and nonviolent crimes, is down 63 percent since 1992-93, according to the latest UAlbany analysis of off-campus crime. City and university officials also point to efforts like door-to-door leafleting, “safety walk and talks” and an “Operation Safe Corridor” program steering students to well-patrolled streets.
“We have had some spikes now and then on kids getting ripped off on the street,” Tuffey said. “But overall I would say it’s a safer corridor than it was. But there’s still some challenges. Let’s be very honest. The cultures are bumping up against each other in this city.”
Ulicki, now 23, and Quinn were coming home from the Quail Street Market when they bumped up against the would-be robber.
The gun in his mouth, Ulicki realized, was fake. He yanked it out. They scuffled. The robber ran.
“I thought it was real,” said Quinn, 22, of Long Island. “In the area I grew up in, you don’t see people getting mugged.”
The UAlbany police Web site archives carry no alert about the crime.