Penn issued twice as many UPennAlerts in 2021 as in 2019 — an increase driven in part by an uptick in alerts for robberies across University City.
In 2021, the Division of Public Safety issued a total of 67 UPennAlerts, up from 58 alerts in 2020 and 34 in 2019. Interim Vice President for Public Safety Kathleen Shields Anderson said the increase in UPennAlerts is not due to a conscious effort by DPS to send more alerts, although crime in Philadelphia has increased in the past two years. She said one factor may be that DPS started issuing alerts for weather-induced suspensions of University operations in the past five years.
Anderson said that the department only sends out UPennAlerts for crimes when it determines it is necessary.
“When a crime is actively in progress that we believe to be at a level of a potential UPennAlert, about 20 people within [DPS] will receive a conference call — it doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is,” Anderson said.
DPS is responsible for sending out UPennAlerts, notifications that are emailed and texted to the University community about situations that it says involve "an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on campus.” The alerts are supplemented by additional information and updates that DPS provides on its website.
The Daily Pennsylvanian Analytics Staff looked at the 174 total UPennAlerts issued between July 2018 and December 2021, pulling data from the campuswide email notifications to examine trends — ranging from the most common alert locations to the most frequent times they were issued. Anderson said that the trends reflected in the DP's analysis were not surprising to DPS.
The DP analysis also used data from the DPS 2021 Annual Security & Fire Safety Report, which includes data from 2019 and 2020, to compare the number of UPennAlerts to the total number of crimes recorded around Penn during that time. The annual DPS report complies with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security and Crime Statistics Act, which requires universities to disclose information about certain crimes that occur on or near campus.
“The purpose [of a UPennAlert] is to give enough people information that there is an ongoing safety concern, give them an action — such as 'avoid the area' — and to let them know they’re going to see police activity, what that situation is, and then direct them to our website for additional information,” Anderson told The Daily Pennsylvanian on Jan. 25.
The DP Analytics Staff categorized the UPennAlerts using both the Clery Act definitions, which encompass types such as "burglary" and "robbery," and three additional categories: “All Clear” for notifications clarifying that normal activity may resume, “COVID-19” for alerts related to the pandemic, and “Other."
In 2019, DPS issued eight UPennAlerts for robberies, a number which rose to 12 in both 2020 and 2021. Anderson said the DP's breakdown of alerts reflects the increased number of robberies recorded overall in 2021 compared to 2020.
Thefts and robberies are by far the most common type of UPennAlerts issued for crime, composing about 1 in 5 alerts over the past three years. Other offenses composing a significant percentage of UPennAlerts include assault, which prompted 16 alerts, and burglary, which led to nine alerts from fall 2018 to 2021.
Civil unrest also contributed to the increase in alerts in 2020, with DPS issuing seven UPennAlerts about protests and civil unrest in 2020 — a year which saw nationwide demonstrations after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, a Black man. Of these seven alerts, four notified the community about citywide curfews that the City of Philadelphia instituted due to the civil unrest.
Anderson said that the vast majority of protesters were peaceful, but occasional instances of vandalization required DPS to notify the University community of “mass interruptions of services.”
Separately, DPS issued one alert about "increased police activity" in 2018 and two in 2021. The most recent of this type of alert, which DPS issued Dec. 14 at 12:20 a.m., was related to a DPS report of "a complainant shot by unknown males" at the same location at 11:53 p.m. on Dec. 13. The Clery Crime Log categorizes the incident as an aggravated assault by handgun.
DPS issues around 60% of UPennAlerts during fall and winter months.
“Population density has an effect. Crime tends to increase in warmer months because more people are outside, and in colder months tends to drop because more people are inside,” Anderson said.
The opposite trend, however, is reflected in UPennAlerts, which Anderson said might be due to the University City population typically experiencing a significant drop in population density during summer months when many students are not on campus.
A slim majority, 51%, of UPennAlerts are issued during daylight hours — defined as after 7 a.m. and before 7 p.m. — while 1 in 10 UPennAlerts were issued between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Approximately 20% of UPennAlerts are related to offenses with a weapon, 60% of which are issued during nighttime, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. These trends mirror a study that found that more severe crimes are more likely to occur at night in big cities, even if overall, crimes are more likely to occur during the day.
As of March 23, DPS has issued eight UPennAlerts since the beginning of 2022 — on par with 2020 and significantly lower than the same date in 2021. However, Philadelphia is still currently experiencing record crime rates in 2022, with 109 recorded homicides.
Additionally, Black Philadelphians are disproportionately affected by both crime and police response. Amid record gun violence, Black women are a growing share of the victims. In addition, arrest records show that Philadelphia police officers are less likely to arrest a murder suspect when the victim is a person of color. Only 33% of cases with Black murder victims lead to arrests, even though 82% of murder victims are Black.
Jack Starobin — a College sophomore, member of Police Free Penn, and former DP staffer — said that Penn does not do enough to prevent violent crime beyond its immediate vicinity.
"[Penn] seems to turn a blind eye to the same crime and violence that’s worth sending out alerts to thousands of people on a daily basis when it happens just a few blocks further away," Starobin said.
Overall, the west side of campus, which Anderson defined as the area between 40th and 43rd streets, sees more UPennAlerts issued for burglaries, which she said is not surprising because it is mostly residential. On the contrary, academic buildings are secured through Operation Building Safe, which requires students to swipe into buildings using their PennCard, making burglaries less common on campus itself.
University City is one of the most heavily patrolled areas in Philadelphia, featuring six overlapping police patrols. Not all offenses that occur in the Penn Patrol Zone — which runs north to south from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue and east to west from 30th to 43rd streets — result in a UPennAlert being issued.
According to Anderson, not all offenses warrant a UPennAlert. In some instances, she said, a suspect may already be in custody after committing a crime before it is necessary to issue an alert, or the police will speak to the complainant and determine that time has passed since the incident was dangerous.
From 2019 to 2020, DPS issued 55 UPennAlerts for offenses that must be recorded under the Clery Act, compared to 1,906 total offenses that were reported in the crime log. In other words, roughly 1 in every 35 offenses that occur in the Penn Patrol Zone prompt a UPennAlert — including 1 in 56 thefts and robberies, 1 in 25 assaults, 1 in 5 shootings, and 1 in 20 burglaries.
Anderson encouraged students to put their cellphone number in the UPennAlert system and utilize Penn Guardian, an app that allows Penn Police to view students’ locations when they call a Public Safety phone number in order to decrease response times.
To make the Penn community safer, Starobin said that the University needs to examine its relationship with the West Philadelphia community and ensure that Penn's wealth and police force do not impose on the well-being of residents.
"The University’s presence contributes very much, as I understand it, to the kinds of circumstances and political and economic realities that contribute to violent crime in Philadelphia," Starobin said.