University of Florida removes years of campus crime data online
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The University of Florida removed nearly eight years’ worth of crime data online without public notification, leaving only limited details about crimes that occurred on or near campus during the past 60 days.
UF reported its highest number of rapes and sexual battery cases last year. There was no evidence that UF removed its historical crime figures because of that, just that it happened around the same time. There were also increases reported to the university last year in burglaries, dating violence, domestic violence, grand theft, harassing communications, stalking and trespass.
Removing the crime data makes it harder for students, parents, faculty, alumni and prospective students and their families to learn important details about their overall safety and risks from serious, violent crimes they may face at specific locations on the campus of Florida’s flagship university, including dorms, classroom buildings or fraternity houses.
In a statement, the university said the changes were made "to ensure the information displayed is accurate and current." That explanation emphasizes that, under federal law, universities are required to keep details updated for crimes for up to 60 days, such as whether police arrested a suspect or detectives gave up on an investigation. UF has not updated its older data – nor was it required to do so – but for years still made the older data available to download.
UF’s historical crime listings dating back to 2016 once made UF among the most transparent among all colleges or universities across Florida about the safety of its students. Details in the crime listings often include the address on campus where each crime occurred, when it happened, when it was reported and more.
A national expert who consults with colleges and universities on their crime reports, S. Daniel Carter, said UF was legally permitted under the Clery Act – the decades-old federal law that requires colleges and universities to publicly report campus crime data – to remove the older crime data from its website. But he said he encourages administrators to be as transparent as possible with details about crimes.
“I always recommend that an institution disclose more information about campus safety than less,” said Carter, president of the Georgia-based Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses LLC. “More information is better.”
Congress passed the law after Jeanne Cleary, a 19-year-old freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, was raped and killed in her campus dorm room in 1986. Neither she nor her family knew the extent of prior serious crimes on campus, and her parents said Jeanne would never have attended if she knew.
UF’s campus safety compliance officer, Rebecca DeCesare, said UF made the change to align with the law and referred further questions to the university’s public relations team. The university police chief – who says on her agency’s website that she values transparency above all else – referred questions to DeCesare’s office.
In a statement, UF spokeswoman Cynthia Roldan said the crime logs are intended “to provide a brief snapshot of real-time crime reports.” The statement did not answer a question about whether the change was related to the increases in reported rapes and sexual battery incidents.
Under rules from the U.S. Department of Education, schools must make available for public inspection 60 days of their crime logs and make records of older crimes available within two business days of someone requesting them.
“The goal is transparency, so, as available as they can make it to the broader public,” said the associate executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center, Abigail Boyer. Her group is a national non-profit that helps colleges and universities meet the requirements under the Clery Act.
Meanwhile, two undergraduates in the university’s College of Journalism and Communications on their own launched ufcrime.com, a new website that restores convenient access to all UF’s historical and contemporaneous crime data and enhances what the school previously had available: It charts reported crimes on a local map and connects each report to any related court records that might exist.
Other universities across Florida – including Florida International University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida Polytechnic University and New College of Florida – continue to provide years’ worth of campus crime data online. Some – including the University of Central Florida, University of South Florida and University of West Florida – offer only 60 days’ worth.
Carter, the consultant, said nationally there is a “pretty solid mix” of universities that offer historical crime data online or only 60 days’ worth.
Details about 60 days’ worth of crimes on campus aren’t enough, said Mikalee Williams, a senior at UF majoring in business who also is a licensed real estate sales associate in north-central Florida. As a Realtor, she said, she regularly discusses crime statistics to clients seeking housing, and students on campus should receive that same courtesy, she said.
Incoming freshmen arriving on campus in the fall would only see information about crimes that happened over the summer, when fewer students were around, she said.
“Not all dorms are open in the summer, so the stats would be skewed,” Williams said, adding that universities should provide at least one year’s worth of crime data.
For example, this week the 60-day snapshot showed only a single rape reported, on Feb. 27, a crime the victim said happened Jan. 19 at an unspecified off-campus location. The full crime data showed three other rapes also reported so far this year – all on campus, including two inside UF dorms.
Florida State University’s crime log has been unavailable online for more than a year. Its website instructs people to visit campus police headquarters to view them in person.
The University of North Florida in Jacksonville also urges students to review its crime log in-person at its campus police department, but the school provided a digital copy of reported crimes there since 2018 within one day of asking for it by email.
UF’s move came last year, without public notice, when it removed an “export” button on its police crime log website that provided a convenient way for anyone to download and explore the listings.
Carter, the consultant, said: “It should be explained when there is a change like that.”
An internal email from DeCesare – obtained under Florida’s public records law – showed that she directed an information technology manager and two software developers on Aug. 9 to “remove the Excel download button from the public site.” Her email indicated it was one of several requests she had made over the school’s crime and fire logs.
Last year, 19 rapes and sexual battery cases were reported to UF, the most since at least 2016, according to UF’s historical data. The university said there were 11 such cases reported in 2021 and nine reported in 2020. The school has about 55,430 students on its main campus in Gainesville.
In its statement, UF said it was important to compare crimes reported in 2022 to crimes in 2019 and earlier because UF’s campus closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, and classes moved online until August 2020. There were 17 rapes and sexual battery cases reported during 2019, and 16 reported in 2018, according to the historical data.
UF separately reports the total numbers of crimes by category – without details such as the specific location of each crime – for each of three recent years in an annual security report it publishes and in a list it sends to the Department of Education in Washington. But those numbers are inconsistent.
For example, UF’s security report said there were 14 rapes in 2021, and in the figures it sent to the Department of Education said there were 16 rapes. The university’s own, detailed, historical data showed there were 10 rapes and one sexual battery reported during 2021.
UF has not made available the 2022 figures yet for its security report or for the Department of Education. Its detailed crime log showed there were 19 rapes reported during last year. Eleven of the 19 listed specific addresses where the rapes occurred, including three fraternity houses, a specific dorm building, a graduate student apartment building and a UF parking garage.
Roldan, the UF spokeswoman, did not respond to emails or phone calls over two weeks asking about the discrepancies.
In recent years, the Department of Education has fined universities – but not UF – hundreds of thousands of dollars for Clery Act violations, including failing to report crimes accurately. Also in recent years, the department's inspector general criticized the University of Texas at San Antonio and University of North Georgia for publishing inaccurate crime statistics, which it said hampered current and prospective students, their families and others on campus from making decisions about their safety and security.
Sexual assault cases are widely believed to be under-reported to authorities. A spring 2019 campuswide survey at UF by the Association of American Universities showed that about 30% of women undergraduates experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent. That was an increase of nearly 10% over a similar survey in 2015.
Increases in reports of sexual assaults can be the result of different factors, said Cassandra Moore, a coordinator for Alachua County’s rape center and victims services office. It might mean crime increased or that victims are more comfortable reporting them, she said.
In many of the rapes reported to UF, campus police said they took a report, referred the case to another investigating agency, noted that no criminal charges were filed or said the complaint was later withdrawn.
UF said that under its new system, anyone can file a request under Florida law using its portal for a copy of the historical crime data within two business days. It's the same data that UF said it removed from its website over concerns it might not be accurate or current, since some crimes might not include the latest case updates.
The school, which regularly charges as much as hundreds of dollars for some public records, said it will provide the crime records for free. In response to a request in December, UF provided the full crime log within four hours. A few weeks ago, responding to another request, it sent the latest version of the full log within 16 hours.
Williams, the UF student, said that before she obtained her real estate license she did not know how to submit a public records request and many of her fellow classmates at UF don’t, either.
“It’s not as transparent or accessible as it could be,” she said.
Moore, who works at the county’s rape center, said 60 days of crime data provides a snapshot of current crime activity and expecting students to file a request for the full campus crime data under Florida law could be cumbersome.
“For some who have limited access to technology, it could be a barrier,” she said.
The county’s state attorney, Brian Kramer, has won high-profile convictions in such UF cases since he took office in January 2021, including against a top UF fraternity officer accused of spiking the drink of a classmate in March 2021 at a popular bar during a date function and sexually assaulting her as she regained consciousness.
Prosecutors also won a conviction in a jury trial in October 2021 against a former UF resident hall assistant accused of assaulting a woman who lived in the dorm he supervised. His lawyer called it “a misunderstanding among platonic friends fueled by alcohol.”
Kramer said his office heavily considers the victim's interests in deciding whether to pursue a sexual assault case in court.
“What I personally have tried to do is be more victim-centered,” he said in an interview. “And it cuts both ways, in the sense that if a victim is telling us that they don’t want to proceed, and they have a provable case, then the analysis for me is we have to take the victims’ wishes with great weight under the law, and I have to weigh that against the public safety issue.”
Kramer’s office also has dropped such cases after students have been formally, publicly accused and sometimes arrested. In July, Kramer’s office decided against filing formal charges against a former Florida Gators basketball star who police said sexually assaulted an intoxicated young woman at a pool party. The player has transferred and now plays for Kansas State.
In November, the office decided against charging a UF fraternity member from Tampa after police said he raped a student after a semi-formal fraternity event in December 2021. The woman told police she remembered waking up to him sexually assaulting her in his apartment. Court records said he apologized in a Snapchat message for having sex with her while she was blacked out. The fraternity member is seeking to have the court records associated with the case destroyed.
In response to a public records request last month, the university did not turn over any emails beyond the one from DeCesare. That request sought “any communications, including emails, texts, policy papers or other written forms of messaging, related to UF's deliberations or decision to remove from the internet the functionality to download historical campus crime data older than 60 days.”
UF did not turn over a thread of at least four other emails exchanged during December on the subject with a UF journalism professor who had noticed the change and questioned DeCesare and police Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick. The professor asked why the records were removed online.
DeCesare cited a federal regulation from 2014 governing campus crime statistics and said the older crime logs could be requested. In its statement, UF said the emails she exchanged with the professor “did not meet the parameters set by the requester.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. You can donate to support our students here. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com. The new UFCrime.com website was produced by students Isabella Douglas and Zachary Carnell. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.