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A spirit that is not afraid

What the annual security report tells us about crime at Auburn

<p>Designed by Evan Mealins</p>

Designed by Evan Mealins

Auburn University released its Annual Security and Fire Safety Report on Oct. 1, a collection of reported crimes on the University’s campus in 2020. Fewer crimes were committed on Auburn’s campus for most major offenses in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to the report.

Each year, Auburn and all other higher education institutions are required to publish this report under the Clery Act, a federal law passed in 1992. These reports show the number of crimes that were committed in the University’s “Clery geography,” the property owned or otherwise recognized by the University — including campus buildings, student housing, fraternity houses and public streets on or adjacent to campus.

A map of Auburn’s Clery geography can be viewed here.

The Clery Act has idiosyncrasies to it: if multiple crimes occur during the same incident, they generally aren't all counted, except for sex offenses, which are counted in every occurrence and are lumped into very broad categories, either rape, fondling, incest or statutory rape. Crimes are also defined differently than under state law. Still, the report does provide a picture of what Auburn’s campus was like last year.

There were several offenses for which no crimes were reported in 2020: murder, manslaughter, incest, statutory rape and dating violence. Since none of these offenses were reported in 2018 or 2019 either, with the exception of a murder/non-negligent manslaughter in 2018, they do not appear in the graph below. The reason no cases of dating violence appear is a matter of how the Clery Act intersects with state law. 

Ten rapes, three cases of fondling, 14 aggravated assaults and 43 cases of stalking were reported in the University’s Clery geography.

Two hate crimes were also reported on Auburn’s campus last year. Here is the description of the hate crimes from the report:

There were two reported intimidation crimes with a bias of race that occurred on public property. The first incident involved an individual using racial slurs and threatening to shoot someone after an argument outside a downtown establishment. The second incident involved an individual yelling negative comments at an anti-racism group and driving his vehicle near the group in an intimidating fashion.

Clery defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense that manifests evidence that the victim was intentionally selected because of the perpetrator’s bias against the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, national origin, and/or disability.”

Nearly all of the primary crimes in the above chart, except for fondling, were reported equal or fewer times in 2020 than in 2019.

According to Susan McCallister, director of Campus Safety & Compliance, most of the differences are a normal variation in crimes that we can expect to see each year. There is a certain expected range that the number of crimes will fall into for each offense, so generally, a small change is nothing outside of the norm. 

One instance that stood out to McCallister, though, is the number of burglaries that were reported. 

“That is most likely just because we didn't have as many people living on campus,” McCallister said.

When students were sent home in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, the likelihood of a crime being committed on the University’s Clery geography fell. But perhaps the pandemic didn’t have as much of an effect as some expected.

“I was really, I think, a little bit surprised that there wasn't more of an impact from COVID,” McCallister said. 

But the University was open in the summer and fall, so McCallister said it makes sense that numbers were “pretty close to what they have been in the past.”

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The report also includes arrests and violations of alcohol, drug and weapons laws. Clery defines liquor law violations as “the violation of state or local laws or ordinances prohibiting the manufacture, sale, purchase, transportation, possession or use of alcoholic beverages.” Notably, this does not include charges such as driving under the influence or drunkenness. It does, however, include charges such as a minor in possession of alcohol.

Forty-five people were arrested for liquor law violations in the University’s Clery geography, down 40 from 2019. Once again, part of the reason for this goes back to the pandemic. With fewer large in-person events like tailgates and football games to drink at, fewer were arrested for alcohol violations.

“I don't think the alcohol consumption necessarily changed dramatically, but maybe it was in different places where it wasn’t as public,” McCallister said.

The report also compiles fire data for the previous year. No fires were reported on Auburn's campus.

What the report doesn’t show

When looking at the numbers, it’s easy to think that a lower number of reported crimes means that less crimes occurred, which is generally true — but not always.

Rape, fondling and other forms of sexual assault are well-known to be underreported — 20% of college-aged women report to police if they are raped. At Auburn and any other college, there are invariably more cases of sexual assault than those that are reported.

“A low number doesn't necessarily mean that the crime’s not happening,” McCallister said.

An increase in reported cases of sexual assault may be indicative of an increased willingness to report these crimes, rather than an increase in sexual assaults themselves.

“I don't want to see the numbers go up, but we do want to see more people report if things are happening to them,” McCallister said. “We really want people to tell us, even if they report things and don't want to take any action, at least we can include the information in our crime statistics.”

Due to the Clery Act’s unique definitions of crime, the number of crimes reported for other offenses may be higher than they would be if counted under state laws. 

“There's a big disconnect there between the state law, which is there for holding people criminally accountable, and the federal law, which is there for us to have stats and statistics that can be compared across institutions,” McCallister said.

For example, motor vehicle thefts include joy rides taken on campus golf carts. One year, she recalled, a student took a drive in one campus golf cart after the other. After he was caught, each golf cart he drove was counted as a separate motor vehicle theft under the Clery Act.

Most of the Clery definitions are of broader scope than the definitions in Alabama law. 

“There are a lot of different things that go into the categories that may not be what you would typically think,” McCallister said.

Finally, this report doesn’t tell us how many times an offender was arrested, except for liquor, drug and weapons law violations. However, McCallister said the number of arrested offenders is low. 

“Often, there is not an offender identified,” she said. “If there is ... it may be up to the victim to decide whether or not they want to sign a warrant. So, you may get in a fight with somebody and have to have a few stitches, and that's gonna be an aggravated assault, but maybe it's somebody that you know, and you decide, 'I don't really want to press charges against them.' So that person would never be arrested for that crime.”

Comparing schools

One benefit of the Clery Act and its generally standardized definition of crimes and how they are counted is that it allows for comparison between different universities. 

Crime reporting, though, is not an exact science, and in some ways these security reports, while the best thing available, are a bit of a blunt instrument. Differences in culture, campus layout, the share of students that live on campus and size of Clery geography can all contribute to differences that make such comparisons somewhat difficult.

“There's so many different factors as far as the nature of the campus and the types of programs they offer and the demographics of the students,” McCallister said. “Some campuses have your traditional age, some have more adult learners … Even though you're supposed to be able to compare apples to apples, it does make it hard to do a true comparison.”

Many times, differences in the number of crimes reported comes down to how they are categorized — whether a case of relationship violence is considered dating or domestic violence, for example.

Unlike most schools, Auburn chooses to classify all instances of relationship violence that would otherwise be considered dating violence as domestic violence. This is because domestic violence is one of few offenses that the Clery Act defines in terms of state or local law. The Clery Act instructs universities to include in its counts of domestic violence all cases that would be reported as such under state law, and Alabama law has no statute regarding dating violence, specifically, so those types of crimes are counted as domestic violence. 

McCallister said Campus Safety was instructed by a Clery Compliance Officer to report all instances of dating violence as domestic violence.

For this reason, dating violence and domestic violence have been combined into one category for a more accurate comparison between universities.

Comparison between schools with demographics and culture similar to Auburn is still useful, McCallister said, and is something that Campus Safety has done in the past. 

Included in the chart are Auburn and the six other SEC schools closest geographically to Auburn — the University of Alabama, University of Georgia, University of Florida, University of South Carolina, Mississippi State University and the University of Tennessee. (Ole Miss and Kentucky are not included because Ole Miss has not yet released its Security and Fire Safety Report, and Kentucky lumps rape and fondling into one category, making an accurate comparison in those categories impossible with the given information.)

Because of differences in enrollment in fall 2020 between universities, the number of offenses per 1,000 students is used as a comparison. Offenses for which no crimes were reported at any university in 2020 are not included in this graph. These are murder, manslaughter, incest and statutory rape.

Compared to these other six schools, Auburn had the highest rate of aggravated assault and stalking in 2020.

Focusing specifically on what Clery defines as either sex offenses or violence against women — rape, fondling, domestic and dating violence and stalking — Auburn had some of the most reports. 

Adding up each school’s rank in those four categories based on crimes reported per 1,000 students, Auburn was the second worst, behind only the University of Tennessee.

Compared to the other six universities, Auburn was much tougher on alcohol, drugs and weapons in 2020, arresting people at the highest rate in all three categories.

Looking ahead 

While McCallister said that Campus Safety uses crime statistics throughout the year to inform their policies, the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report is a good chance to look back and notice any patterns that may arise.

“We might recognize a pattern and decide that there's some other safety program we can put in place, or maybe we need to enhance our security camera system in a certain area,” McCallister said.

As she has tracked crime data this fall, McCallister said that the number of reported crimes has been lower than she was expecting.

“It seems like our arrests and reports overall are lower,” McCallister said. “I expected them to go up quite a bit for this semester because people had not been able to be out interacting as much.”

According to the University’s Crime Log, there have been seven rapes reported in Auburn’s Clery geography in 2021 that are classified as rape under the Clery Act. There have been three cases of fondling, 10 aggravated assaults, nine cases of stalking, five cases of domestic violence, one robbery, nine burglaries and four motor vehicle thefts. No instances of the other primary Clery offenses have been reported.

Editor's Note: All information included occurred on Auburn University's main campus. No crimes as defined by the Clery Act were reported at other Auburn campuses (this does not include Auburn University Montgomery).

Evan Mealins | Editor-in-chief

Evan Mealins, senior in philosophy and economics, is the editor-in-chief of The Auburn Plainsman.


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