Nicole V. Rohr
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeburg called the Notre Dame Police Department on Sept. 1, 2009 to
report an alleged sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player the previous day. A
freshman at nearby St. Mary’s College, Seeburg died of an overdose in her dorm room
nine days after that call. Campus police, however, never informed county police, who
investigated her death, that the deceased had reported an attack at all. Campus police are
keeping silent and denying requests for information.
“If something happens on campus, then it’s kind of like Vegas. Whatever happens there,
stays there,” said Dr. Tod W. Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University
in Virginia. Burke said that information sharing between campus police departments and
other local and state police agencies is not required, and since many campus security
offices now serve as police offices with sworn officers, they have their own jurisdictions.
That island is campus, its own community.
In a perfect world, campus police departments would communicate regularly with
surrounding law enforcement, and this does happen in small communities. When this
does not happen, some criminologists question the motivation to keep crimes isolated. It
would make sense for smaller agencies to call in extra help from other offices for violent
offenses, like sexual assault.
“If you run a university, do you want to see a long line of students in handcuffs for
prostitution and drugs and everything else on the front page of the paper? The answer is
of course not,” said Dr. Howard Kurtz, professor of sociology and justice studies at
Oklahoma City University. Campus police departments are tied into the public relations
angle of crime reporting—some handle it responsibly, others do not. He explained that
campus police departments try to reach a middle ground as far as which cases should
involve local law enforcement. The instinct is to not burden the university with the
numbers or the local officers with extra duties, but this reasoning allows victims like
Lizzy Seeburg to get lost in the shuffle of papers. Sexual assault is already an
underreported crime, and this uncertainty could further discourage victims from coming
While campuses are required to report crime statistics annually to the U.S. Department of
Education under the Clery Act and have the option of reporting figures to the FBI as a
part of Uniform Crime Reporting, or UCR, nothing is in place to ensure the campus
police department’s communication with surrounding authorities. If the campus is a
community within a community, sharing information could aid officers in investigations,
particularly involving repeat offenders or victims.
“You don’t want to overburden the local police, and vice versa. They don’t need to know
every single thing that goes on on your campus. It only will become an issue when…
let’s say you have somebody who is a suspect and they live in the community and
something happened to one of the students,” Burke said.
So, in theory, if a person is victimized in a sexual assault or other crime on two separate
occasions—one on campus and one off campus—unless the two police agencies
communicate with one another, there is a chance that the two will never know it has
happened more than once the crimes are connected unless someone with that knowledge
comes forward. So, two police agencies could potentially never know that similar,
possibly connected, crimes are occurring both on and off campus. With repeat offenders,
there exists a deep sense of urgency. With repeat victims, having the complete story from
all parts of the community may be a priority, but the rules in place do not always allow
for that story to come together.
The general consensus among experts and law enforcement is that if the crime is serious
enough, information will be shared and another police presence will be requested for
assistance. That is, only if the victim’s injuries are serious enough will another unit be
called in to provide additional technical and professional support.
“When you start talking from an investigation standpoint, I don’t want to say that it’s
always a case-by-case basis, by you almost have to look at it like that,” Kurtz said. Was
Seeburg’s case not serious enough to warrant a “case-by-case” evaluation?
“At Notre Dame, that sounds like a tragic case. It sounds tragic, but everybody may have
followed the correct procedure for their organizations in that case. Maybe it needs to be
changed if there’s a serious case or there’s a felony assault or something,” he said. Kurtz
made the point that in serious cases, small agencies like campus police departments need
outside help anyway for DNA testing and other information that is sent to the state.
Therefore, it is assumed that local and/or state authorities will be called in, but nothing
has been put in writing that requires that. “I think when you’re talking about private
organizations, when you’re talking about even state universities, that there’s always a
sense that we want to handle things from the inside if they can be handled,” he said.
So, procedure does not always need to be changed with these agencies, but there needs to
be some uniformity in how and when information is shared. Case-by-case allows for
many different interpretations of what needs to be done. The Northwestern University
Police Department, for example, has tackled the problem with one document.
Lieutenant Ron Godby said that the Northwestern department has a strong working
relationship with the Evanston Police Department and that a written agreement between
the two agencies outline protocol for responding and how the duties are divided
depending on the type of crime. “Criminal sexual assault is one of those incidents where
our police department has primary authority. Some things [like homicide] are handled by
the Evanston Police Department both on and off campus, but sexual assault is something
that our police officers are fully trained and fully capable of handling on campus,” he
This document that attempts to regulate procedure, however, is kept strangely secret and
outside of any city ordinance. In essence, there is no law holding this agreement in place
and when the document was requested from the Northwestern University Police
Department, that request was denied.
There is still no greater authority that ensures on- and off-campus communication
remains consistent. Both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education simply collect
data with no interpretation. Their goal is to provide the information to the public with full
transparency. It is up to separate organizations and individuals to use the two sets of data,
which do not always match up, to achieve some greater comparative goal.
“As you go across jurisdictions, the definition of a felony can change from one state to
another. The definition of a misdemeanor can change,” Kurtz said. “So, when you put all
that together and you start looking at national data like Uniform Crime Reporting, it can
be tricky to get precise measures out of any of that.”
Dr. Magnus Seng, associate professor of criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago,
has analyzed data from Illinois colleges and universities spanning 16 years. Seng said that
a lot of the schools, but not all of them, report to the Illinois State Police. In analyzing the
data, he studied schools that reported every year during that time period. “The other
issue, of course, is what really gets reported. The fact that some security departments are
police agencies, some are security agencies, and that the university has its own policy, as
we’re finding out with Notre Dame with respect to sexual assault, is always a touchy
field,” he said.
“If you’re one department, you don’t have to report everything that happens in your
department. It doesn’t really work that way. If you’re putting your data into a national or
statewide database, at some point, people in other jurisdictions will know about it,” Kurtz
explained. “Or you can get arrested and somebody puts it into the FBI database as an
arrest, but somebody else sees that and they put that in their database and it pings back
into the FBI as a new offense. It is a problem.”
And when a campus police department is actually a campus security department with no
arrest powers, they are not required to follow reporting guidelines mandated by the state
as authorized campus police departments are. That means that these security offices have
more power to handle things internally without ever involving local police.
“I think probably the burden on the security office to turn things over to police and move
them along as opposed to handling them internally is something that has to be defined on
a case-to-case basis,” Kurtz said. “It’s just like if you own a private business and
somebody comes in there and they make threats against one of your employees. Your
security guard can ask him/her to leave or he can take him/her into custody or he can just
write up an internal report, and I don’t know that there’s any law saying that they had to
do any of that. But when you become a dually authorized police department, then I think
you have to follow whatever the rules are for that state in terms of reporting.”
These dually authorized campus police departments can run into issues communicating
with the school, too, even if their communication with the local police is rather strict.
Illinois State University’s police department has a tight bond with the Normal, Ill.
department, but turning civil matters over to campus conduct offices can cause
complications in reporting the correct figures. At Illinois State University, and many
other universities in Illinois, issues of sexual assault can be handled at a civil level and
labeled as “sexual misconduct” or some other term, depending on that school’s definition
in the student code of conduct.
“What we have a problem with right now, unfortunately, is some duplication, and we
state that in our reports,” said Major Aaron Woodruff, deputy chief of police for the
Illinois State University Police Department. “Community Rights and Responsibilities [the
conduct office] has a hard time differentiating what they’ve done. And that’s not just for
sexual assaults, but any crimes. So, if we’ve sent something to them, they count it as a
statistic and it might count as a statistic for us, too.” Detective Ryan Ritter with the
Normal Police Department also added that some sexual assaults could be reclassified as
battery or other types of crimes depending on the injuries involved.
So, there is no guarantee where a survivor’s emotional account will end up if he/she
chooses to report it. In an ideal setting, local police becomes aware of a serious situation
like sexual assault when it happens on campus. Without a larger governing body
requiring communication between the two entities, however, many tragic tales just
disappear in Vegas.