A Brief and Violent History of Campus Policing

Protesters gather outside of the Penn Police headquarters. A Black woman holds a microphone in front of a white banner with black text that reads: Pay PILOTs Now #PoliceFreeCampus.

by Police Free Penn

Welcome to Pennsylvania, a state that has raised the number of incarcerated people by 288% since the 1980s. There were 46,449 people in PA prisons in 2018: 47% were Black, even though Black people make up only 11% of the state’s population. When we account for all types of incarceration (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), there are about 96,000 PA residents locked up by the state and its partners in 2020. Following our first pandemic year, the PA Department of Corrections (DOC) reported 10,830 COVID-19 cases, with 139 inmate deaths from the virus. We can’t understand the expansion of the prison system without looking at the role of policing.

If you walk west down Market St. from 30th St. Station, in 1.5 miles you pass through the jurisdictions of six police departments: Philadelphia, Amtrak, SEPTA, Penn, Drexel, and Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). Philadelphia is one of the most heavily policed cities in the U.S. and home to two of the country’s largest campus police forces: Temple University Police Department and the University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD). Following 2020’s nationwide uprisings against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, Police Free Penn and a growing coalition of organizations are demanding the disbanding of campus police departments. You can join us in this nationwide struggle here.

As the state that stole these Black lives passes toothless legislation and bloated police budgets, our work has only begun. Both history and our current reality have shown that capitalism, racism, and policing go hand in hand, in a partnership called the United States of America. In the U.S., modern policing traces its roots to slave patrols in the South, which shows how the root of policing has always been racist. Furthermore, American policing has a long history of union breaking in Northern cities as well as the genocide of Indigenous peoples on the frontier. Universities in this country, like the police, also have deep historical connections with two pillars of this U.S.’s founding, stolen African labor and stolen indigenous land (see: Slavery at Penn, Indigenous Peoples & Penn). These connections persist today in the form of massive endowments, large real estate holdings, racist monuments, and museum collections. Campus policing, while a newer development, aligns with and leads Penn’s legacy of violence.

Police have always existed to protect the interests of the rich and propertied, while universities increasingly profit off of the prison industrial complex. While we don’t know exactly when Penn first hired security for its campus, we know that by 1938, thirteen armed guards were empowered by the City of Philadelphia to make arrests on and near campus. These guards described their duty as protecting property and running “bums” off campus. Campus policing in its modern form took off in the Civil Rights era, in direct response to student anti-racism and anti-war protests.

By the 1960s, Penn’s guards compiled a list of “undesirable elements” who were “saying nasty things about the Administration.” Moreover, the guards allegedly attempted to bug the Daily Pennsylvanian office. Students, however, pushed back against the growing police presence. In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., graduate students successfully petitioned the University to disarm the daytime campus guards. The following year, Penn students and other Philadelphians held a week-long sit-in at College Hall over the construction of the University City Science Center, which was displacing Black West Philadelphians. This violence was international, as the center was contracted to research chemical weapons for the Defense Department. While this sit-in ended peacefully, on other campuses student activism was met by state repression. The 1970 murders of students at Kent State by National Guardsmen and at Jackson State by local and state police led Nixon to commission a report on “campus unrest” and led to the creation of more professional campus police forces. Penn’s police force was officially established in 1974, amidst the suppression of student protests around the country. While not all campus police are armed, and not all are embedded with city police, Penn has both.

The expansion of campus policing complemented Penn’s role in destroying the Black Bottom neighborhood, developing “University City,” and expanding its campus westward (see: Penn’s History of Displacement). During the 1970s, Penn asked Philly police to increase patrols around the new “University City,” while 60 Penn police officers patrolled Penn’s campus. The University increased its security budget to $675,000 (around $4 million adjusted for inflation) and hired former Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) officer Merle Smiths, Superintendent of Safety. Thus, Penn police coordinated directly with the City’s notoriously racist police department while fortifying Penn’s growing hold on West Philly, a practice that continues to this day.

In the late 80s, state and federal legislation required universities to maintain an open crime log, feeding the false narrative of runaway crime. Today, this system manifests in the mandated alarmist text notifications we all receive about “suspicious individuals.” In 2001, Penn made an official Memorandum of Understanding with the PPD, which included a push for Penn Police to have more power outside of campus boundaries. Maureen Rush, the current Vice President for Public Safety, recruited “many of her best colleagues from Philadelphia Police to Penn.” Indeed, Penn’s ties to Philadelphia Police run deep. Over the decades, the City has spent millions of dollars in settlements and lawsuits against PPD’s abusive behavior, and despite the dozens of police shootings of unarmed Black people, no officer has been convicted. How racist is the PPD? In 2019, the Plain View Project compiled racist Facebook posts by 330 Philly police officers: 13 were fired, and 72 were put on desk duty.

Campus policing has become increasingly militarized in the past two decades, especially following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Over 100 schools have received surplus military equipment, including armored vehicles and assault rifles, through the 1033 Program. UPPD now has its own K9 unit and SWAT team (referred to as the Emergency Response Team) which was deployed in the summer of 2020 to repress protests in the 52nd St. neighborhood, significantly outside of UPPD’s jurisdiction. UPPD has also greatly increased the number of police within the “Penn Patrol Zone” in a strategy called saturation policing, coined by abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Under Superintendent Rush, the department has grown to 121 officers. As Director of Special Services Patricia Brennan put it, “Maureen has built an empire here. She built a human wall.”

Today, that means seeing four to six different police cars walking from Market St. to Baltimore St., with UCity security on their bikes and on the corners throughout the area. In February of last year, in response to nationwide calls for defunding police departments, UPPD announced its new position of Captain of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, only giving more money to UPPD for a solution we know does not address the root issues of police violence.

Police Free Penn is organizing to tear down the “human wall” of UPPD. We reject the ideas that policing and surveillance keep us safe, or that the University should invest millions to exclude, harass, and detain our neighbors who have long called West Philadelphia home. After years of diversity and bias trainings, police reforms will not solve the problem of a system set up to punish the poor and the non-white.

Our aim is to abolish policing and transform community safety at the University of Pennsylvania. We invite you to read our demands and join us in the struggle.

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