Syracuse University Police are ready to protect you from something they can’t tell you about

Photo: Syracuse University Department of Public Safety

The chief law enforcement officer at Syracuse University sent an email to everyone to tell them not to be afraid. This obscured the real purpose of the email, which was to cover his ass while not saying anything at all.

Here’s the email that my friend got. I’ll highlight the weasel words and passive voice and provide a translation and commentary

From: Tony Callisto
Date: April 5, 2018 at 9:09:17 PM EDT
Subject: Message from Tony Callisto, Chief Law Enforcement Officer

Syracuse University
Division of Campus Safety and
Emergency Services

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff:

Commentary: We’ve haven’t even begun and Chief Callisto has already made a serious error. The subject line of an email should tell you what it’s about. This one redundantly repeats the “From” line.

Translation: Ahem. Ahem, ahem. Is this thing on?

Earlier this evening, a local media outlet published a story about an incident involving a now former Syracuse University student.

Commentary: Why even say this if you won’t provide a link? (If you’re imagining the rest of the email will tell you what the “incident” is, you’ll be disappointed.)

Translation: Something happened. I can’t say what. Go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.

Several law enforcement agencies identified that student as posing a potential threat to public safety. When the University learned about the situation, the student was already out of the country. The student never returned to Syracuse, New York and the Syracuse University community was never in danger.

As a result of the quick action and tremendous collaboration between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the potential threat was swiftly eradicated.

Commentary: Well, now we know there was a threat. It must have been important because it required quick action and tremendous collaboration among federal, state, and local law enforcement. (I don’t know about you, but I tend to assume there is a serious problem if the FBI is involved.) Someone (zombies?) eradicated the threat. Eradicated sounds serious, too, like they shot someone or blew up a building. But of course, we still have no idea what the threat was, just that we were never in danger. If we were never in danger, why send the message?

Translation: Working together with state and federal law enforcement agencies, we eradicated a threat that didn’t exist from someone who was out of the country.

Because of the nature of the case, Syracuse University honored the request of law enforcement to maintain confidentiality while the investigation was underway to prevent jeopardizing the outcome.

Per our University policy, and because this was a student conduct matter, we will not be providing further details.

Commentary: Now that you’ve read most of the email, Chief Callisto attempts to explain why it is free of content, and fails.

Translation: This email doesn’t say anything. I cannot tell you anything about why this email doesn’t say anything.

Ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our campus community is and will always be Syracuse University’s chief priority. Any behaviors that violate our community standards, values or Code of Conduct will not be tolerated and will be met with appropriate disciplinary action.

Commentary: Boilerplate. The opposite of reassuring. And false. I would hope the chief priority of Syracuse University would be education, not “ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our campus community.” But that statement may reveal a little bit about Chief Callisto’s worldview.

Translation: We keep you safe. We stop people who violate our Code of Conduct. Because we’re the department of (dun, dun, dun)  . . . public safety.

If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Commentary: Just one question, chief. Why did you send an email about something you can’t talk about? This is the opposite of reassuring.


Tony Callisto
Senior Vice President and Chief Enforcement Law Officer
Division of Campus Safety and Emergency Services

So, what actually happened in Syracuse?

Fortunately, my correspondent provided a link to the article this letter refers to on Syracuse.com, “Police: How Syracuse University student was stopped while planning mass shooting.

From this article we learn that:

  • Syracuse University student Xiaoteng Zhan, 22 was stockpiling ammunition, gun accessories, and a bulletproof vest and tried unsuccessfully to buy an AR-15 rifle.
  • He told a friend that the “dark side” had pushed him to buy a these items and wrote to her that “I might use the gun to cause trouble,”  “I have been preparing,” and “You’re the only one I don’t want to kill.”
  • He had acquired a hunting license.
  • When he tried to buy the gun, a suspicious gun store owner tipped off Syracuse city police, who investigated and, after six days, got a search warrant and found the stockpiled items in Zhan’s apartment.
  • Zhan was vacationing in Mexico. When he finally returned, they deported him.

This article contradicts the only actual statement in Chief Callisto’s letter: that the Syracuse University community was never in danger. It sounds to me like the only thing that saved Syracuse from a mass shooting was a suspicious gun store clerk and the fact that Zhan decided to go to Mexico before he could get a gun. Note that the article says nothing about actions of the Syracuse University Department of Public Safety, only the local police of the city of Syracuse.

When covering your ass, try not to scare the crap out of people

Now we see why Chief Callisto wrote the email. It was not to warn anyone of anything, or to reassure anyone. It was to cover his ass in case anyone read the articles about Zhan and his attempts to get a gun.

There was no need to send this letter to every single person on the Syracuse University mailing list. And since the letter says nothing but sounds scary, it did more harm than good.

The next time there is a real threat (a measles epidemic, an actual shooter, a rash of students passed out from alcohol poisoning), Chief Callisto should use this channel to address the community. Using it for politics makes it less effective in case of actual threats.

And the lesson for writers is clear: if you have nothing to say, don’t broadcast your vacuous statements to your whole organization.

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One Comment

  1. Good insight, in my opinion. Thank you. For those of us who ineffectually rail against the puff-weasels who throw this kind of buracra-fluff out there, you are becoming a beacon of hope, Josh. Please carry on….