Sitting on her neighbor’s porch steps, College senior Diane Chernoff faced a man with a gun.
The man pointed a gun at Chernoff and her friend sitting next to her, demanding that they hand over “everything [they] have,” Chernoff said. The robber fled after taking their phones, her friend's wallet and keys, and Chernoff’s bag.
Penn’s Division of Public Safety never issued an alert to the Penn community about the crime, which alarmed Chernoff.
“I feel like it would only be appropriate to know that a person with a weapon who's mugging people is out on the streets, and [that the police] don't know where they are,” Chernoff said.
Chernoff’s robbery is one of three crimes committed against Penn students this semester that The Daily Pennsylvanian has identified, none of which resulted in immediate arrests, and none of which prompted DPS to issue campus safety alerts. While there has not been a “big uptick in crimes against people” on campus, according to DPS, and the total number of violent and property crimes in Philadelphia has decreased slightly since 2015, these incidents have led some Penn community members to raise questions about how DPS issues alerts.
These crimes also reveal longstanding problems with a federal law governing campus crime reporting that universities have for years struggled to understand and interpret, according to campus safety consultants.
The Clery Act of 1990 requires that colleges and universities send timely warnings to the campus community when a Clery crime, like a sexual assault, robbery, or burglary, poses a “serious or ongoing threat,” Associate Executive Director of the Clery Center Abigail Boyer said. It also mandates that colleges and universities maintain a daily crime log of all reported crimes within their jurisdictions.
The law was enacted after a Lehigh University student raped and murdered fellow student Jeanne Clery in a residence hall. Her family realized that Lehigh never publicly reported a number of prior violent crimes committed on and around campus.
How DPS decides to issue crime alerts
DPS issues UPennAlerts — emergency notifications sent to all Penn students, staff, and faculty via text, email, and a posting on the DPS website — when reported crimes rise to the level of an “ongoing threat” to the campus community, Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of the Penn Police Department Maureen Rush said.
Alerts are issued on a case-by-case basis after deliberation among 18 to 20 members of DPS, who will join a closed conference call at any hour of the day, according to Rush.
This case-by-case method is typical of many universities, which weigh and consider factors such as the timeliness, severity, location, and the nature of an incident before sending out an alert, said Sue Riseling, the president and founder of The Riseling Group, a professional services firm specializing in campus safety and the Clery Act.
“It’s anything but black and white,” Riseling said. “There’s a large group of people who often scratch their heads, trying to figure out what's the right thing to do by the rules and then what's the right thing to do by practice.”
Since the start of the fall 2021 semester, DPS has issued nine UPennAlerts: three in response to criminal incidents, and six to test the alert system or warn of inclement weather.
While UPennAlerts generally cover Penn's Patrol Zone — which extends from 30th Street to 43rd Street and Market Street to Baltimore Avenue, while also including the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center and Pennovation Works — threats on the border of or nearing the Patrol Zone can still prompt alerts, Rush said.
Chernoff's robbery took place after midnight on Sept. 24 at the heart of Penn’s off-campus undergraduate residential community on 41st Street and Chancellor Street, a side street nestled between Walnut and Locust streets.
Police found Chernoff’s belongings later that morning at the edge of the Patrol Zone — approximately half a mile from the scene of the crime — on the 400 block of University Avenue, near the School of Veterinary Medicine. According to the Clery Crime Log, the robber was never arrested.
DPS did not issue a UPennAlert for Chernoff's case because after the suspect fled, he was "well outside of the Penn Patrol Zone; therefore [he was] no longer posing an ongoing threat to the community,” Rush wrote in an Oct. 13 email to the DP.
DPS walks a difficult line in determining which crimes warrant UPennAlerts, according to Rush. While the Clery Act constrains DPS officials, Rush said they try to be mindful of “alert fatigue”: not wanting to send out too many alerts for fear of desensitizing the Penn community to the warnings, or causing unnecessary emotional distress. Because there has not been a big uptick in crimes against people near campus, Rush also expressed concerns about creating an unnecessary climate of fear.
Rush said that DPS makes decisions about whether to issue an alert in a fast-paced environment with limited resources.
“On any given Wednesday to Sunday night, we’re handling a lot of alcohol cases in the hospital. We’re breaking up parties," Rush said. "People are human. We might not get it right."
In fact, the Clery Act penalizes universities that send out "too many" timely warnings, such as those for crimes that are not deemed serious or ongoing, said Melissa Carleton, an attorney and consultant for INCompliance Consulting, which specializes in the Clery Act.
Even so, students like Wharton junior Mea Ayers feel the absence of alerts for crimes committed near campus can put them in danger.
Ayers walked past the scene of the Chernoff robbery, unaware of the events that had transpired 30 minutes prior, and was surprised to see a “flood of cop cars” by Chernoff’s residence. She wished the student community was alerted about the incident as soon as possible.
“A new level of fear takes over when you realize that you knew the person that the event happened to, and that it happened, really, in your backyard, and that you weren't warned about it,” Ayers said.
Crimes deemed "too far" from campus for alerts
On Aug. 24, an unknown man grabbed College senior Santana Browning as she walked home at midnight near 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue, wrapped his arm around her neck, and threw her to the ground, she said.
Though the incident took place two blocks outside the Patrol Zone, Penn and Philadelphia Police responded to the scene, Rush confirmed in an Oct. 7 interview. The Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victims Unit handled Browning’s case, according to Rush. SVU did not notify Browning of an arrest or charges that were filed against the assailant.
A Philadelphia Police report obtained by the DP described the crime as a “sexual assault,” adding that the assailant was “pulling at [Browning’s] clothes” after knocking her to the ground.
The incident did not prompt a UPennAlert, and DPS did not log it in the Clery Crime Log.
DPS deemed the incident "too far" from the Patrol Zone to warrant an alert, Rush said. Rush added that the Clery Act only obligates the University to report crimes committed within the Patrol Zone in the Clery Crime Log.
The lack of a UPennAlert frustrated Browning, who stressed that other women deserved to know about the incident, which took place during on-campus move-in.
Riseling said the incident reveals a problem that she herself experienced as police chief at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Once a university starts to report or investigate crimes beyond its Clery boundaries, it can face pressure from the Department of Education to take on additional liability by expanding its Clery boundaries altogether.
“The Department of Education wants you to draw the line and stick to it. If you start to fudge that line, and go beyond that line, then the Department of Education’s expectations change that line," Riseling said.
Last year, the Trump administration rescinded more detailed guidelines about when universities must issue timely warnings after a Senate report found the 2016 Clery Handbook to be "unnecessarily voluminous." The Department of Education enforces the Clery Act through a “program review process” in which it selects institutions randomly or based on complaints and “media audits,” Boyer said. She added that if an institution is found to be out of compliance, the Department of Education can impose fines of over $50,000 per violation. Penn State University, for example, was fined $2.4 million in 2016 for failing to notify students about an assistant football coach charged with sex abuse, among other violations.
Second-year Penn Law student Robert Blake Watson, who is a board member of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, said that some alerts could equip the “large quantities” of students who live outside the Patrol Zone with the knowledge they need to take adequate precautions against crime. Watson, however, expressed reservations about issuing too many UPennAlerts outside the Patrol Zone, citing concerns about how the alerts will shape students’ views of West Philadelphia.
These concerns are magnified by Penn’s complicated relationship with the West Philadelphia area that surrounds campus, Watson said.
During a public hearing conducted by the Penn Public Safety Review and Outreach Initiative, students, staff, faculty, and West Philadelphia residents provided testimony about their encounters with DPS, including concerns that messaging can be exaggerated and that police presence can be physically and emotionally traumatizing for people of color.
Crimes without alerts may be in the Clery Crime Log — but some are unaware it exists
On Sept. 6, as Engineering senior Hussein Khambhalia was walking home around 8:40 p.m., a man approached him from behind and stole his cell phone, Khambhalia said. Khambhalia alerted DPS to the crime, which took place on 40th and Market streets.
No one arrested the assailant, according to the Clery Crime Log, and Khambhalia never got his phone back that night. The crime did not result in a UPennAlert, surprising Khambhalia, who said he knew of many students who lived nearby.
The crime did not pose an ongoing threat because the "offender fled north and ran outside of the Patrol Zone," Rush said. Khambhalia’s phone was on the edge of the Patrol Zone at 40th Street and Powelton Avenue, according to an Android tracking software that Khambhalia used to locate his phone after it was stolen. DPS refused to search the block, Khambhalia added.
After the incident, he transferred his lease to a different off-campus location, citing safety concerns.
Khambhalia said DPS appears to operate on the assumption that a person who enters Penn’s Patrol Zone to commit a crime, and then departs the Zone, will not return, and therefore poses no threat to the community.
The incident was logged in the Clery Crime Log, which all students can access. But few students check it, and many don’t know it exists at all, according to College sophomore Bekezela Mbofana.
“Knowledge is power,” Mbofana said in reference to the Clery Crime Log. “If we're going to be safe, we have to know when things are unsafe.”
College junior Humberto Caballero agreed, adding that “there's a difference between the [Clery] Crime Log being publicly accessible, and the public actually being informed.”
In early October, a group of more than 60 parents of Penn students signed onto an email to top officials, including Penn President Amy Gutmann, requesting “concrete plans” that the University will take to address the “feeling of augmented insecurity” among students due to un-alerted crimes, according to Erika Goldgewicht, who authored the email.
In an Oct. 8 emailed response to Goldgewicht’s email, Rush wrote that Penn increased the number of Penn Police patrols and unarmed Allied Universal Security Services officers, in addition to expanding “virtual patrols” through PennComm’s street cameras around campus.
Riseling added that the constraints outlined in the Clery Act — namely, those surrounding timely warnings and Clery geography — can foster the perception that universities are not being transparent.
“Sometimes, I think folks believe that, if [campus safety officers] aren't telling us everything, they have something to hide. And I don't believe that's the case. I think that they're trying hard to figure out how to follow a very complicated and far less black-and-white law,” Riseling said.
College junior Dotun Bello said there’s a whole host of ways that DPS could better publicize the Clery Crime Log, including posting the log on an app or holding more community information sessions on the alerts system.
Still, questions linger among some students about the UPennAlerts process and whether the current notification system could be more effective.
“It’s not a matter of what [DPS] knows and what they don't know, but rather a matter of what they decide to disclose to us,” Ayers said. “It's imperative in these safety situations that we hear as much live, accurate information so we can all take the steps necessary to keep ourselves and the rest of the community safe.”
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