George Floyd didn’t die on a college campus, but his killing at the hands of Minneapolis police last year brought a wave of scrutiny to university police forces. After intense examination, several local schools have begun to make changes.
At Temple University, campus police started wearing body cameras and began reviewing visible tattoos of officers for potential extremism or bias. The University of Pennsylvania is adding three community members to its public safety advisory board and exploring the possibility of sending a plainclothes counselor along with an officer on mental health-related calls. And Drexel University police have received more training on how to deescalate conflicts, and intervene if they see a colleague using excessive force and address bias.
Colleges also are conducting surveys to better understand concerns of students, staff, and community members. Pennsylvania State University just launched its second.
Charles Leone, who has served as executive director of Temple’s public safety for six years, overseeing the 115-officer department he has been a part of for 35 years, said it’s the first time he’s seen so many policy creations and alterations and new training added in such a short period.
“We really took a hard look at where we are and where we need to be and what we want to be especially for our community,” he said.
Some faculty and students say changes on their campuses don’t go far enough — a Penn professor who belongs to a group calling for the abolition of the armed campus police department termed its response “farcical” and “hollow” — while others see the efforts as a first step and hope more improvement comes.
“They are aiming in the right direction,” said the Rev. Charles “Chaz” Howard, Penn’s chaplain and vice president for social equity and community, who co-led Penn’s public safety review. “I’m sure we are not done with this conversation, and I am hopeful.”
What the reports say
After Floyd’s death, colleges started or restarted task forces on campus policing. In recent months, some have released reports, showing myriad concerns about unfair treatment of people of color on or near campus, the use of force, and lack of transparency.
Drexel president John A. Fry acknowledged the hard-hitting criticism in a June 1 message to campus, and the university has pledged a “reimagining of public safety.”
“We must be clear-eyed about the fact that too many members of our university community do not feel safe in the presence of [Drexel police] officers,” Fry wrote.
The report’s findings, he noted, include problems found in towns and on campuses nationally, including “disproportionate stops and questioning of community members of color, particularly Black men; armed officers being dispatched to address noncriminal and/or nonviolent situations, potentially escalating them; and a lack of good data with which to track and improve outcomes.”
In a spreadsheet on 82 stops or interactions by Drexel police in which a person was experiencing a behavioral health crisis, about one-third refer to the person as a “Black male” or “Black female,” while most others don’t list race, the report said.
“This disproportionate reporting or accounting of race ... raises a host of questions about the potential for explicit or implicit bias to be influencing behavioral health crisis encounters,” the report said.
Based on input from 550 people, Drexel’s report also included positive accounts, saying police build community and protect the campus.
“Seeing a heavy presence of officers makes me feel safe,” one student reported.
Other accounts were troubling. One “stakeholder” noted “friends who have had guns pulled out on them by DUPD officers” without good reason. A student said police “harassed my friends for being LGBT or [people of color] on several occasions.”
Similar concerns were expressed in other university task force reports.
To improve transparency, Penn is releasing more documents about police procedures and stops on a website, and is changing the composition of its public safety advisory board. It’s also giving power to someone outside the police department — senior executive vice president Craig R. Carnaroli — to appoint members. Maureen S. Rush, vice president of public safety, had appointed them before.
She noted that the 121-officer department averages about four complaints against officers annually, and in her 27 years there, she can’t remember the last time any involved use of force. Her officers have been wearing body cameras since 2018.
But she said that given what’s happened nationally, officers have to work even harder to establish positive community connections.
“We are working triple-time on making sure especially minority communities and also international communities have a sense that this is their police department, that Penn police are here to make them safe and make them feel safe,” she said.
But Chi-ming Yang, an associate professor of English with Police Free Penn, a 60-member group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni that formed last year, said the department’s efforts fell far short.
“It really ignores many of the key recommendations that were made by the task force itself,” she said. “It’s deeply troubling.”
The department didn’t release a detailed budget or commit to fewer officers and less of a police presence, as called for in the report, she said. Nor did it show any new way of reinvesting in the community, she said.
It also didn’t address the recommendation that a party outside of the police department, such as human resources or the Ombuds Office, review complaints against officers.
Howard, the chaplain, says he understands that police have felt a bit dumped on by the scrutiny.
“There are some things we can act on now and there are some things that are going to take a little bit longer,” he said.
“They are the best collegiate police force in the country,” he said. “They keep a whole lot of people safe every day, including me. And yet, they are a part of a national police system and a legacy of American policing that is broken.”
A commitment to diversify
Penn State reactivated a task force on policing and communities of color it started in 2015 and expanded it to police departments in surrounding Centre County communities. In May, it equipped officers on its campuses with body cameras. The university is planning an advisory board and attempting to add diversity to its 167-officer force, which in 2020 was more than three-quarters white and only 2.4% Black, said Iris Richardson, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for police and public safety, a position created in 2019.
To attract more candidates, the university began advertising on all campuses and stopped requiring a four-year degree in favor of a high school diploma and some experience in the field, she said.
The review will be ongoing.
“We need to assess ourselves internally and externally to move forward and be the best we can be,” she said.
At Temple, the department is establishing a policy on officers who fail to address excessive force by a colleague and more explicitly outlining levels of acceptable force, Leone said. It also purchased more Tasers.
“We want to have as much in their toolbox as we possibly can,” he said, with “clear guidance on what can and cannot be done.”
Temple also is working on an early warning system to track potential problems with officers that would assign points for complaints, use of force, and vehicle accidents, he said.
Senior Bradley Smutek, president of Temple student government, said the biggest problem is a communication gap between police and students, which leads to misconceptions. But the department, he said, has been open to feedback.
“There are incidental failings, but I do think on the whole, our police department does not have as many problems as some do,” he said.
But police could try harder to get to know students, said junior Samantha Quinlan, student government vice president.
“They should have events where you can come and meet the people who are going to be protecting you and supporting you,” she said, so that officers “are not just a face that comes in at a point of a crime.”
She remembers learning from a young age about police brutality nationally.
“As an African American woman, it’s disheartening,” she said. “It’s terrifying. It’s a deep struggle.”
She’s glad Temple police are at least trying to improve: “Let’s see how it goes.”