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Katie Steen: What really entails a crime alert?

By Katie Steen, Columnist
Published February 17, 2013

By now, most of us are aware of the sexual assault reported on Feb. 3, which involved a cab driver raping a 21-year-old University student in an off-campus parking lot. University students received the now notorious UM Police Department e-mail — "CRIME ALERT"— with only the most rudimentary details of the incident listed. I received the standard frantic phone call from my mother later that day, telling me the same: Always be aware of your surroundings, and We should get you some pepper spray.

Then I got that phone call again about a week later, but this time it came as a surprise. The call was about a cab assault, except this was about another incident. “And apparently this is the third cab assault in under a month,” my mom said over the phone. Three instances involving sexual assault in Ann Arbor cabs in less than a month, and we only received a crime alert for one of them?

I did some research, and the information out there is sparse and vague — so work with me. The first assault occurred on Jan. 23 and involved the cabbie “making inappropriate advances” toward a 19-year-old University student, which included an attempt to remove her clothes. She kicked the man and managed to escape. The second event was the rape for which we received the crime alert on Feb. 3. The third incident occurred Feb. 10, and involved a man grabbing a woman’s thigh and kissing her before she was able to exit the cab. According to The Michigan Daily, that suspect has since been arraigned.

So, there’s the basic overview of cab assaults in Ann Arbor in the last month. I urge you to read more about them online if you use cabs, or even if you don’t. Why the lack of crime alerts for all three? According to the Daily, University Police spokeswoman Diane Brown explained that the lack of a crime report for the Feb. 10 incident was because “the crime did not occur on campus and does not involve sexual assault in its legal definition.” A reason for the failure to post a crime alert for the Jan. 23 assault was not offered.

Let’s take this apart in small bites, so as to avoid projectile rage-vomiting.

Firstly: “The crime did not occur on campus.” True, but we receive crime alerts regarding off-campus crimes all the time. Simple enough, but I’ll go on. The thing with these assaultive cab drivers is that they can, you know, drive. They can drive off-campus to pick up and grope women, and they can drive on-campus to pick up and grope women. So the fact that this one incident didn’t happen on campus doesn’t mean that it can’t happen again on campus. Because, let’s be honest — if it’s the weekend and someone’s hailing a cab, he or she is probably not going to be doing it on the Diag.

Secondly: According to the University Police, it’s not legally sexual assault. But it was aggressive enough that we should at least be made aware of the incident.

Let’s look at some other crime alerts. “Attempted home invasion.” “Attempted armed robbery.” If someone attempts to mug another person, there’s a crime alert regardless of if the mugging is successful or not. So why is this different for attempted rape? It’s possible that if the Jan. 23 woman did not kick the driver and escape, she could have been raped, but the lack of a crime alert sends a message that attempted rape doesn’t warrant a crime alert so much as attempted home invasion or robbery. That’s pretty disturbing considering that rape is a crime that, compared to a robbery, likely affects people on a much more personal and potentially traumatizing level — that involves not the taking of an object but of basic human rights.

But you know what? A further scroll down past crime alerts reveals, July 6, 2012: “Attempted Sexual Assault off-campus.” That was off-campus and an “unsuccessful” rape, and we still got a crime alert. So, why the inconsistency?

I want to go back to the University Police’s claim that the Feb. 10 incident “does not involve sexual assault in its legal definition.” According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health, sexual assault includes “rape or attempted rape” and “touching your body or making you touch someone else’s.” So I would like to know why exactly thigh groping, kissing and attempted removal of clothing don’t qualify as sexual assault, because, to my knowledge, all of the above actions certainly fall under the category of sexual assault.

And anyway, I don’t really give a shit about their legal definition of sexual assault. I want to know if I shouldn’t take a cab because there’s someone — potentially multiple people — in Ann Arbor molesting women in cabs. Isn’t that the duty of the police department: to inform and protect its citizens? I’m not going to scan the news every day for reports on sexual assault or any crime for that matter; that’s what the crime alerts are for. The University Police Department needs to stop getting caught in the inconsistently enforced legal stipulations of sexual assault, and inform us when crimes occur that pose a threat to the student body.

Katie Steen can be reached at katheliz@umich.edu.


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