Ernest Owens was walking back from a Jimmy John's sandwich shop to his room in Du Bois College House, just a few hundred feet away. It was about 1 a.m. in the spring of 2012 when he was stopped by a Penn police officer on a bike, he said.
Owens recalled the officer telling him about a report of suspicious activity in the area. The officer asked for his name and ID, and searched the paper bag his sandwich was in, Owens said.
Owens, who is Black, was confused. He was wearing a Penn shirt, as he almost always did because of his pride for the University. The officer patted him down and followed him to Du Bois to watch him swipe into the building.
Owens, who graduated from the College in 2014, said this experience was one of several times he was stopped, asked for his ID, or watched by a Penn police officer. Other Black students and alumni say they too have been surveilled or stopped by Penn police officers because of their race.
Their longtime grievances have been reawakened in recent months by the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. In June, Police Free Penn formed to campaign for the abolition of the campus police, in part because of what the group says is the campus police's “harassment of Black students and community members.”
Police Free Penn also alleges Penn police joined Philadelphia officers in teargassing protesters on May 31 on 52nd Street, outside their patrol. Maureen Rush, the Division of Public Safety’s vice president for public safety and superintendent of Penn police, wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that a "small number" of Penn police officers responded to calls for assistance from Philadelphia Police that day. Rush has also served as president of the Philadelphia Police Foundation since 2012.
Rush wrote that Penn police did not use force or arrest any protesters, and that the Penn police do not own tear gas or rubber bullets. Penn police on the scene cleared safe passage for the Philadelphia Fire Department and assisted store owners in securing their stores and leaving the area, Rush wrote. She added that the legal jurisdiction of Penn police extends outside its patrol zone, which gives Penn officers legal authority to operate on 52nd Street.
In June, the University commissioned an independent review of its Division of Public Safety, which oversees the Penn Police Department, in response to the protests against racial injustice. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law School will conduct the investigation into the Penn Police Department — the largest private force in the state of Pennsylvania and the second-largest police department at a private university in the United States.
Eric Rohrback, a Penn police officer since 2002 and president of the union that represents campus police, said officers are trained to stop students and ask for ID only if they are acting suspiciously or match the description of a suspect. He said the officers also attend mandatory yearly diversity training, in which they are encouraged to consider their own biases related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion.
“There’s no racial profiling. I don’t know what they’re looking for,” Rohrback said, referring to the investigation.
The Division of Public Safety declined a request for an interview with Rush and declined a request for records of complaints against Penn police officers, citing the University's announced investigation. Protesters have demanded Rush's dismissal.
Calls for change in policing at Penn are echoing in college campuses across the nation. In June, students at the University of Chicago occupied the campus police department and called for its abolition. Although its police force said protesters were free to leave the building after they entered, protesters alleged they were trapped inside without food or access to bathrooms. Harvard University students and alumni protested outside of the University president’s house last week demanding the abolition of Harvard’s police and its “criminalization of poor and Black Cambridge residents,” one protester told The Harvard Crimson.
Hector Kilgoe, a Black rising fourth-year graduate student in Religious Studies and 2015 College graduate, believes Penn police have repeatedly viewed him with suspicion.
While he was waiting for a food delivery outside the Quad gates in the fall of 2014, a patrol car pulled up on Spruce Street. Kilgoe said the officer watched him until the delivery arrived and he swiped back into the Quad. He added that he has also seen Black students repeatedly stopped and questioned by Penn police at the lower Quad gate on several occasions — a practice he said he has not seen white students subjected to at that location.
“For many Black students, [Penn police officers] don't feel like the protectors that the University wants them to be,” Kilgoe said.
Kilgoe said during exams in the fall semester of 2014, Black students requested that Makuu, the Black cultural center, stay open later at night to allow students more hours to study. He said the University told students it could not keep the building open because it would cost too much to pay a security guard for the extra night hours.
When students began participating in Black Lives Matter protests soon afterwards, Kilgoe said a Penn police officer started guarding the ARCH building, home to Makuu and other cultural centers.
The Division of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment on this allegation.
“Policing is a big issue here, but I think the way the University approaches students of color, specifically Black students, makes it more dangerous for us, and they use the police as a tool to make sure we're not getting out of line,” Kilgoe said.
Owens recalled being stopped and frisked by a Penn police officer during the weekend of Spring Fling in 2013, his junior year at Penn. Another student he knew who saw the encounter approached him afterwards to ask about the incident.
“It was just embarrassing. And that's the stuff that people don't talk about, that level of the singling out [of Black students] that happens, because normally no one saw it. But someone did,” Owens said.
Owens said he never filed a report about being stopped and frisked by Penn police officers, in part because he feared retaliation by University officials.
“It was just a thing that happened every blue moon, that I kind of just was like, 'okay, it's happening,' and, you know, I go on about my life,” Owens said. “To be honest, these types of things have happened to me as a Black man in this country more times than I can count and I just thought that this was just a part of life.”
Owens believes the UPennAlert Emergency Notification System, which texts crime suspects' descriptions to students and employees, contributes to the profiling and harassment of Black students.
“You see the alert that says ‘It’s a Black man that’s six feet tall,’” Owens said. “Well that's a f**ked up description because I'm a six foot Black man. That’s not enough information.”
Rohrback said the alerts are “flash information” meant to inform students in the area to look out for a potential suspect, and to be aware to stay away from them or call the police in case they see a suspect. The alerts are generally sent to the Penn community quickly after a crime happens, when the police may only have a brief physical description of the alleged assailant, Rohrback said.
Black students and alumni also said the fear of being stopped or profiled by Penn police has led them to adapt their public behavior. Rising second-year School of Social Policy and Practice graduate student and 2019 College graduate Mariama Diallo said she learned that Black students often wear Penn clothing to clearly identify themselves as University students and discourage Penn police officers from potentially stopping them.
“You think that you're in the safe space where you're supposed to feel like you belong, and you just don't,” Diallo said.
During New Student Orientation, Penn police officers typically give a presentation on safety tips for living at Penn and in Philadelphia. Owens, Kilgoe, and Diallo all said that during the presentations made in their orientations, Penn police portrayed the area west of Penn as dangerous and crime-ridden. The idea that West Philadelphia residents, who are predominantly Black, pose a danger to Penn students creates an environment in which stopping or surveilling Black students can be justified in the name of crime prevention, Kilgoe said.
“Penn students are taught by the Penn police that those are danger zones. And so they kind of create a demand for themselves by generating fear in the student body,” Kilgoe said.
Rising third-year SP2 graduate student and Police Free Penn member Chris Rogers, who is Black, said the University’s touting of its large police force on campus tours for prospective students made him uncomfortable.
“I was immediately thrown by that part of the tour, because police in my life have never been an indicator of safety,” said Rogers.
About 23% of Penn's 120 police officers were Black as of 2014. The Division of Public Safety declined to provide updated statistics on the racial makeup of its police force.
The relationship between Penn police and the campus and community at large has been fraught with tension over the years, despite pledges from the University to improve how officers conduct themselves.
But when the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2014, and complaints about campus police mounted, the Division of Public Safety cited its existing training from the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission, which consists of four days a year of lessons on criminal codes, use of force, and firearms.
In 2014, Rohrback wrote a guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian condemning Gutmann for participating in a “die-in” led by Penn students at her holiday party in 2014, in protest of the 2014 Ferguson, Mo., police shooting death of Michael Brown.
“To have her participate in such a disrespectful act is not, in any way, ‘support,’ and proves that she does not have the backs of ‘her’ officers,” Rohrback wrote in his column. “It is a slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this University.”
Even before the Black Lives Matter movement, however, Penn police came under scrutiny for how officers interacted with people of color. After a Penn police officer handcuffed a Black minor to a tree for allegedly trying to steal a bike in 2014, students demanded an explanation. Rush told students at the time that the officer was “chastised,” but did not specify any disciplinary measures.
In 2013, Penn police faced allegations of racial profiling when Philadelphia resident Mustafa Waliyyuddin claimed he was wrongfully beaten for resembling a Black man suspected of stealing a bike from campus. The University denied the allegations, and the case was dismissed by U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 2014 after Waliyyuddin declined to pursue the case.
In the past, when students have alleged racial discrimination by Penn police, University and Division of Public Safety officials have met with student groups and promised change.
In 2004, students marched to College Hall protesting alleged racial profiling by Penn police and the wrongful arrest of then-College sophomore Warith Deen Madyun. Madyun said that officers used excessive force, slamming him into the ground. Gutmann met with protesters and said she was committed to addressing their concerns about racial profiling on campus.
Three years later, the detention of a Black male College student prompted another round of meetings between University administration and Penn’s campus minority groups about police-community relations.
The Division of Public Safety declined to comment on whether the University will institute new policies in light of America's current reckoning on racial injustice. Rohrback said he expects the investigation to lead to some reforms such as increased sensitivity training for Penn police officers.
“There's always policy changes. With what is happening now, everybody has changed their use of force policy,” Rohrback said.
The Division of Public Safety has a formal process for investigating complaints alleging police misconduct. “With a meaningful and effective procedure for handling citizen complaints, we believe citizen confidence in the integrity of the department and its employees has been achieved and maintained,” according to the Division's website.
The Division refused to release details of complaints to the DP, however -- including of complaints that were sustained.
Owens said that the University and Penn police need to use the current national movement as an opportunity to make changes in its policies and its treatment of Penn's Black community.
“Now is time to not just talk about what you stand for and what you value. Now's the time to really implement a real system of change,” Owens said. “They have to do it. It's got to stop.”
Staff reporter Ben Moss-Horwitz contributed reporting.
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