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08-18-20-penn-police-division-of-public-safety-night-time-sukhmani-kaur
Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

A new school year brings nothing but thrill. And while COVID-19 unfortunately continues to rage on, students relish the growing doses of normalcy granted at Penn; in-person classes, increased social activities, and sit-down dining halls, to name a few.

But in the midst of this excitement, many students forget to consider the various public safety precautions that must be taken, especially in a large city like Philadelphia. And while no one wishes to associate danger with our cherished City of Brotherly Love, it is important to face the facts to prevent facing peril. After being cooped up for so long due to the pandemic, students must remember that social outings come with risk, and no matter how eager one is to have fun, safety comes first. This is especially important for first years and other students coming to campus for the first time, as they are new to the city and likely unfamiliar with their surroundings. And while it is ultimately each student’s responsibility to make smart decisions when going out, many of these safety concerns are actually Penn’s fault.

Philadelphia is known to have the highest murder rate out of the country’s ten largest cities, with West Philadelphia specifically listed as a high-risk area. Students may recall last semester’s shooting at Golf and Social Club, a popular bar in Fishtown that Penn students frequented. Closer to campus, Center City has had its share of police brutality and racially-motivated hate crimes, as well as more recent reports of assault and attempted robbery on women walking home. Just last week, there was a shooting at 40th and Chestnut Street, only three streets away from campus and within close proximity to many student homes.

Much of this increased crime in Philadelphia is due to COVID-19 and the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. Not only has the virus resulted in premature death and long-term health issues, job loss, housing displacement, and increased poverty levels, but it has also caused racial conflict, mental health crises, and political unrest. Social and economic factors are closely connected to crime, and because West Philadelphia was hit especially hard by the pandemic, the increase in crime is not surprising.

Penn’s presence in West Philadelphia has exacerbated social and economic unrest. For starters, the school’s decision to invite students back to campus in January 2021, one of the peak months of the pandemic, had life-threatening effects on the surrounding community. West Philadelphia is home to many people of color who were already disproportionately affected by the virus, so the arrival of thousands of teenagers from all over the world only hurt the neighboring area more.

This was not the first time Penn failed to consider the well-being of the broader community. Over the years, Penn has taken resources from the local area without adequately giving back, allowing the school to grow into an elite institution while the surrounding area continues to suffer in persistent poverty. One of the most obvious indicators of Penn’s economic privilege is the fact that the school is the largest landowner in Philadelphia but does not pay PILOTs (or payments in lieu of taxes) — funds that would significantly contribute to underfunded public schools. Penn continues to expand and gentrify with an endowment that currently stands at $14.9 billion, yet its home of Philadelphia remains the poorest of the largest US cities. 

The UPennAlert system, while a quick and efficient way to notify the community of nearby danger, is also problematic. For instance, a public safety warning was issued regarding a “large group of protestors.” However, the texts failed to mention that the event was an organized Penn student protest. By specifically telling all members of the Penn community to avoid that area, the school was actively attempting to prevent students from participating in civic engagement with their peers, indicating ulterior motives behind the school’s so-called safety measures.

The UPennAlert texts are also responsible for perpetuating a negative relationship between students and the surrounding area, often characterizing all West Philadelphia residents as dangerous and using language that is racially charged. With descriptions merely including a person’s race, gender, and approximate height, many students are at risk of being wrongfully accused. The system contributes to false stereotypes regarding race and social class, which transcend to other aspects of campus and create an environment of distrust where stereotypes become dangerously generalized. 

With countless incidents of racial profiling and violence targeting people of color, Penn Police pose a threat to the very students they are meant to protect. Many Black students have reported Penn Police singling them out from their white peers to question for suspicious activity. The so-called “suspicious activity” often consists of simply walking on campus, such as the incident where Penn Police followed and accused a Black student of trespassing while walking home from the library. So while Penn urges students to utilize their safety resources, students are often not comfortable asking for help. An abolitionist assembly, Police Free Penn, seeks to abolish policing to improve campus safety, making significant strides in educating the community about police brutality. 

Despite being ranked as the number one school for safety and security, danger on Penn remains prevalent. The combination of Penn’s detrimental actions, harmful police activity, and increased crime makes it more important than ever for students to remain alert and aware as they return to school. Members of the Penn community must be mindful of their actions and be held accountable for the ways in which they have contributed to safety issues, but at the same time, every student must remain vigilant for the sake of their own personal well-being. All students deserve a fulfilling college experience stocked with social contentment, but that cannot be attained without attention to safety. 

It is important to be aware of what safety resources Penn has to offer. For instance, the 24/7 walking escort service is a great way to ensure a safe arrival home, especially for female students walking alone at night. The service can be requested at 215-898-WALK (9255) or by asking any public safety officer on duty. For more information on the Division of Public Safety and other Penn safety resources, visit https://www.publicsafety.upenn.edu/

EMILY CHANG is a College sophomore studying sociology from Holmdel, N.J. Her email address is changem@sas.upenn.edu.

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