Around 2:40 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21, College sophomore Sabrina Palacios and her two roommates encountered a man indecently exposing himself outside their apartment near 39th and Delancey streets. They reported the incident to the Penn Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Department, but, despite the man’s criminal record, which included convictions for sexual assault, a police officer discouraged Palacios and her roommates from filing a report because it would, according to Palacios and her roommate College sophomore Lily Balla, “get swept under the rug.”
On top of this, Penn’s Division of Public Safety did not send an alert to students on campus regarding the incident.
In response to this complaint, Kathleen Shields Anderson, the DPS director of operations and external affairs, said in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System “is only activated for significant emergencies that are confirmed by law enforcement personnel and with the approval of the University’s senior leadership.”
It is shocking that this situation — an individual with a serious criminal history performing lewd acts — was not deemed a “significant emergency” and worthy of an alert to students. Regardless of whether DPS' decision not to pursue legal action against the suspect was justified, Penn students should have been notified so that they could take caution around the alleged crime’s location.
This event calls into question why alleged crimes in DPS’ jurisdiction — the area from 30th to 43rd streets and Market Street to Baltimore Avenue — are often not reported to students through the UPennAlert system. For the safety of students, faculty and staff in University City and West Philadelphia alike, DPS must expand the scope of its alert policies so the Penn community is more frequently notified about any imminent dangers.
DPS does not specifically define which crimes elicit an alert. The alert system of neighboring Drexel University, DrexelALERT, more clearly delineates its alert policies. DrexelALERT only displays alerts to students regarding potential threats such as “ [an] armed suspect on the loose, [an] active fire or [a] credible bomb threat.” However, this designation leaves out crimes that may be deemed less immediately threatening, but can cause potential duress to students nonetheless, such as those related to sexual assault.
If DPS has similar guidelines, this sets an unsettling precedent. If our community is not aware of relevant violent or sexual crimes allegedly occurring on campus, they are unwittingly at risk. Members of the Penn community should know when to be cautious around certain areas in and around Penn’s campus, and the UPennAlert system should readily and transparently provide that information.
In defense of its practices, DPS asserts that alerts are “not activated if in the professional judgment of the responsible authorities such a notification would compromise efforts to resolve the emergency.” We recognize that officers should never be impeded in their pursuit of alleged criminals, but we are skeptical that alerting campus to the presence of a perpetrator would stand in the way of an active investigation. Indeed, logic would suggest that individuals would be more likely to avoid active crime scenes on or around campus if they were alerted, and particularly those who live in the area would know to keep their distance or proceed cautiously.
This is not a call for DPS to alert students of all 726 reported crimes since the Fall 2016 semester — it would be unreasonable to send a community-wide alert about every public urination incident near the Benjamin Franklin statue on Locust Walk. And while members of the Penn community can find a complete list of criminal activity in the Penn Patrol Zone on DPS’ website, DPS should expand the amount of real-time information that is circulated.
Some students have argued that the creation of an additional system to notify students specifically of crimes related to sexual assault would be beneficial. While this could be useful in cases in which the perpetrator is still at large, it would be more effective for DPS to simply change its UPennAlert procedures so that campus is alerted of a wider range of crimes rather than the currently limited amount.
Over the past summer, faculty, staff and students were consistently and thoroughly sent alerts regarding crimes in the Penn Patrol Zone. While this may have seemed tedious to some, particularly those who were not in Philadelphia, these alerts were crucial in making sure the Penn community was acutely aware of any dangers that could affect those on campus.
Maintaining students’ safety and well-being becomes exceedingly difficult if we are missing important information regarding active crimes on and around campus. The UPennAlert system is a fantastic way to warn members of the Penn community about potential threats, but there needs to be a wider standard for what merits an alert. Full awareness of these nearby incidents may startle members of our community, but it is necessary to make sure we are as safe as possible.