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Several student groups advocate for Penn Police to wear body cameras, arguing that video footage from these devices would increase transparency and accountability.

Photo: Courtesy of United Liberty/Creative Commons

Black campus groups are calling for Penn Police to adopt body cameras — but Penn Police says it will not be adopting the technology any time soon.

Leaders of each of the three main black community groups on campus all say they want Penn Police to adopt body cameras. But Penn Police says that storing camera data is expensive, and they are not currently moving forward with the initiative.

“There are lots of pros and cons to having a body camera on,” said Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush in a January interview. While the cameras provide greater accountability, she said that it is expensive to store the footage and that officers must shut off the cameras in private residences if they are so requested.

“I support body cameras all the way” said UMOJA co-chair and College sophomore Ray Clark. “In any scenario, it brings accountability to the issue.”

Clark is concerned about racial profiling close to campus. “I definitely feel there’s a stigma against the West Philadelphia community,” he said. “Specifically where we’re neighbors and we treat them as though they’re enemies.”

Penn National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Chapter President and College senior Keishawn Johnson said all police departments, including Penn Police, should adopt body cameras. “It’s something police should do naturally as an effort for visibility,” he said.

“I think many black men on this campus have just accepted this as part of their daily lives,” Johnson said about racial profiling by Penn Police. “In some respect it’s just to be expected and to be handled.” With regards to the greater Philadelphia community, Johnson said, “We need to be better at recognizing that Penn lives in other people’s homes.”

Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation recruiting chair and Wharton and Engineering junior Jamal Taylor, said he too believes there is “a disparity between how many times a black student will be asked ‘Are you a Penn student here?’” as compared to that for white students.

“Oftentimes the AlliedBarton [guards] will ask to see your PennCard to make sure that you actually do attend the school,” Taylor said. “Especially at night, a lot of students are stopped and questioned by the police.”

Taylor recalled a time when Penn Police stopped him during New Student Orientation during his freshman year while walking down Spruce Street, sober. He said his discussions with Black Men United — a group of black men on campus that meets to discuss racial issues — has led him to believe his experience is not out of the ordinary.

“Even the act of being asked for my PennCard as verification that I am not out of place in a public area is an assertion that if I wasn’t an accepted person here, it might be a greater cause for an issue,” he said regarding racial profiling of black men in the West Philadelphia community.

“As an overarching theme, Penn Police should be more transparent about who they stopped, the reasons that they stopped them,” he said. Taylor added that Penn Police should release data on the number of people of each race stopped by its officers. In January, Rush said that the Division of Public Safety requires officers to explicitly report reasons for stopping individuals.

While these black community leaders all supported body cameras, they said they are not the ultimate solution to ending discrimination by police.

“I’m not all gung-ho for body cameras, but at the same time, anything that can’t hurt,” Taylor said. “It only can help.”

Johnson believes police and others should focus on how they view the black community first. “I don’t think [body cameras are] the one-stop shop answer for the issues that we see,” he said. “At the heart of all these issues is this idea of perception. It’s about how we think about certain groups of people.” Until we solve these core issues, he said, bodies cameras would just be patchwork.

Former President and CEO of the NAACP Benjamin Todd Jealous said after an event on Friday night that Penn Police should be proactively adopting modern policing instead of maintaining the status quo.

“Body cameras won’t stop everything bad from happening, but they will shine sunlight on many bad things that are happening,” he said. “People should be concerned when officers of the law are concerned of being held accountable themselves, because then you are not really an officer of the law as much as you are an agent of lawlessness.”

Jealous said that he was also racially profiled by campus police at Columbia.

He recounted living in a Barnard suite with his friends one year, and being profiled every time he went for dinner in the dining halls. “Every night they would radio in three young blacks and two young Puerto Ricans coming into the west gate,” he said. White men entered too, but they were not radioed in, he said. Eventually, he confronted the officers, and they stopped.

The Philadelphia Police Department is running a pilot program with body cameras. While DPS is not currently experimenting with the technology itself, Rush said in January, “The body cameras for us are more about research at the moment.”

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