On Sunday, May 31, when Philadelphia police lobbed tear gas canisters into a residential West Philadelphia neighborhood along 52nd Street, choking people with noxious fumes in their own homes — and traumatizing a community — another group of officers reported to the scene.
A mile away from their usual patrol areas, some in black tactical gear, some carrying shields, campus police officers from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University assisted Philadelphia officers amid unrest and protests against police brutality, photos and video show.
And although both universities say their officers did not use tear gas, rubber bullets, or pepper spray, or make arrests in West Philadelphia that Sunday, their presence at the violent scene has caused students, faculty, and staff to question why the two private, tuition-funded police agencies were sent there in the first place.
“We never believed that Drexel officers had tear gas,” said Dylan Kaye, a medical student and a member of Drexel Community for Justice, an organization formed after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd that is calling for the university to divest from its police force. “But they were there, providing backup to the PPD, way outside of their jurisdiction, and helping to oppress peaceful protesters in a predominantly Black neighborhood.”
The episode has also dredged up long-standing concerns about how the schools’ police forces operate and interact with the communities they border. Compared with Philadelphia police, the privately run campus departments enjoy many benefits of police power with less accountability or public scrutiny, civil rights groups have said.
An Inquirer investigation published in July found that PPD officials had not adequately prepared staffing for potentially volatile protests or unrest after the killing of Floyd. And when chaos erupted on 52nd Street, instead of attempting the department’s standard crowd-control measures, Philadelphia police officers indiscriminately deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray.
Officials from both universities said their officers had responded to calls for help from the city’s Police Department. But Philadelphia police said last week that they didn’t specifically ask the college officers to be there.
Police radio calls from that day indicate that city officers summoned for backup after reporting a large crowd of people near 52nd and Chestnut around 2:45 p.m. About 3 p.m., police called for all available officers to report to the area to help deal with unrest. (State law allows police officers to operate outside their normal jurisdiction if another department asks them to provide aid or if they have “probable cause” to believe another police department needs help.)
On 52nd Street, police reported rocks being thrown at their vehicles, people looting stores on the corridor, and others smashing windows on unoccupied police cars and setting them on fire.
SWAT teams arrived just after 3:30 p.m., and witnesses told The Inquirer of a terrifying scene as residents ran from tear gas, children gagged on the substance as it seeped into their homes, and police shot multiple people with rubber bullets, including an elderly woman and a cabdriver.
By 3:30, chopper footage by Fox 29 shows officers from both Drexel and Penn on 52nd Street.
Both Penn and Drexel have access to the city police’s radio transmissions, but it’s unusual for their officers to respond to requests outside of their patrol zones, which end at 43rd and 36th Streets, respectively, a high-ranking Philadelphia police official with knowledge of the 52nd Street operation said. (Drexel also patrols an athletic complex between 42nd and 44th Streets.)
The campus departments’ agreements with the city “lay out what we’re responsible for and they’re responsible for in their patrol areas and on campus,” said the police official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “There’s nothing in there that talks about a riotous situation that they respond and help with. Everything it talks about is us going [onto campus] to support them with functions they don’t have.”
In an email, Drexel media relations director Niki Gianakaris wrote that campus police responded to “officer assist” calls on 52nd Street, but did not say under whose command they operated on the scene.
Drexel campus officers were asked to “watch a building in the area of 52nd and Market Streets,” she said, and tried to detour traffic and pedestrians from the area, although traffic flowed along several east-to-west streets in the corridor, even as Philadelphia police fired tear gas along 52nd Street.
Drexel police made no arrests on the scene, she said, but witnesses said they saw a Drexel officer holding the arm of a person in handcuffs about 3:20 p.m. on 52nd Street.
Initially, Gianakaris said the university had looked into one photo of the episode and determined that the man, seated on the ground with his hands behind his back, “needed medical attention,” which the Drexel officer was trying to facilitate.
But another photo from another angle shows the man, with one hand clearly in handcuffs, being held by the arm by a Drexel police officer. Viktoria Zerda, the legal observer who took that photo, said she saw police, including a Drexel officer, pulling the handcuffed man down the street, as he bled from his head.
“The guy who was being arrested was pretty traumatized and shocked by the situation,” Zerda said. “No one could understand why he was being arrested, and we were asking the police officer to call a medic.”
Then a police supervisor arrived and asked the Drexel officer why the man was being arrested, Zerda said.
“The Drexel police officer said, ‘I don’t know,’” she said, “and the [supervisor] said he needed to be released. They took the handcuffs off, and the guy just finished walking home.”
Asked later about Zerda’s account, Gianakaris said the university’s original statement — that the officer had been helping someone get medical care — was wrong.
“It was determined that the Drexel officer was attending the individual after he had been handcuffed by Philadelphia police,” she wrote in an email. The school’s Anti-Racism Task Force also issued an apology.
Penn has the biggest private police force in Pennsylvania and its officers, certified by the commonwealth, respond to an average of about 200 calls to 911 each month, said Maureen Rush, superintendent of the campus police.
On May 31, a “small number” of officers “under the command of a high-ranking Penn Police Commander, responded to numerous and urgent calls for assistance from the Philadelphia Police officers who were on the scene,” said Rush, also the school’s vice president for public safety.
Rush, who worked for the Philadelphia Police Department for 18 years before coming to Penn in 1994, declined to specify which units or the number of officers Penn sent, or how long they were there. At least one Penn officer wore a patch reading “UPPD Emergency Response Team.”
The Penn officers on 52nd Street, Rush said, provided cover for firefighters putting out flames, and helped store owners trying to secure their businesses.
Even if the Penn and Drexel police didn’t participate in acts of force on 52nd Street, the fact that they were on hand during what neighbors have described as a deeply traumatizing episode — against the backdrop of a national reckoning over police brutality and racism — has prompted demands for change at the universities.
The newly formed Police Free Penn, seeks, among other demands, to defund and disband the school’s police department.
The 52nd Street episode, activists say, was a tipping point after years of concerns over how both schools operate in West Philadelphia — how their tenacious growth has fueled gentrification and tensions with longtime residents. At a recent protest, demonstrators shared stories of feeling racially profiled by campus officers, a sentiment expressed by Black Penn students for years.
Even after spending nine years at Penn as a veterinary technician, student, and researcher, Christian Cross, 28, said she still fears walking home at night after a shift.
“Not because of my neighbors, but because of the Penn police on the corners, that will mistake me for a criminal, even with my scrubs on,” she said. “Even with my ID around my neck.” (Racial profiling is “something the university does not tolerate,” a Penn spokesperson told The Inquirer last month.)
In June, Penn withdrew its funding to the Philadelphia Police Foundation, and commissioned a review of the campus police by an organization within Penn’s law school — a response Police Free Penn called “demeaning and wholly inadequate.”
Drexel Community Justice has circulated a petition demanding the university end its relationship with city police and divest from its own campus police. The school commissioned an “independent review” of its force, which will also examine the department’s interactions with Philadelphia police, Gianakaris said.
But for faculty and students at Penn and Drexel with ties to the neighborhood, knowing of their own campus police’s activities that day on 52nd Street still stings.
Amelia Carter, the assistant director of Penn’s South Asia Center, lives off of 52nd Street on Chancellor. On May 31, she and other neighbors had lined up to observe and to protect Black-owned businesses from looting. When police began firing tear gas, she was hit with gas three times — and as she attempted to flee to her home, she found it was full of noxious fumes.
By showing up to 52nd Street, Carter said, Penn police helped to perpetrate the violence in her neighborhood.
Cross, who grew up in North Philadelphia, has family who live near 52nd Street.
A day after police fired rubber bullets and tear gas in her family’s neighborhood, Cross was caught in the clouds of tear gas on I-676 while protesting against police brutality.
Police actions those two days, she said, were a breaking point.
“I let [Penn] inform a lot of my instruction, a lot of my ideas about the world, about my place in the world as a Black woman,” she said. “The entire time I’ve been here, I’ve been trying to represent myself in a very educated and nonthreatening way. And that meant a lot of pushing down my feelings about what is done, how Penn’s presence is felt here in the West Philadelphia community. And I think I’ve had about enough.”