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, 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 Street from 30th Street 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 University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD). Following last summer’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. Join us in this nationwide struggle here.
Still, as the state that stole these Black lives passes toothless legislation and bloated police budgets, our work has only begun. History and our current reality has 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, union breaking in northern cities, and genocide of indigenous peoples on the frontier. Universities also have deep historical connections with two pillars of this country’s founding, stolen African labor and stolen indigenous land. This persists today in the form of massive endowments, large real estate holdings, and racist monuments and museum collections. Campus policing, while a newer development, aligns with 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 when Penn first hired security for its campus, by 1938 thirteen armed guards were empowered by the City of Philadelphia to make arrests on campus “or in the near vicinity.” These guards described their duty as protecting property and running “bums” off campus. Campus policing did not take off, though, until 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” and allegedly attempted to bug the Daily Pennsylvanian office. Students pushed back against the growing presence of policing. 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 and 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 more professional campus police forces. Penn’s police was officially established in 1974, amidst the suppression of student protests around the country.
Not all campus police are armed, and not all are embedded with city police. Welcome to Penn, which 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-trification). During the 1970s, Penn asked Philly police to increase patrols around the newly developed “University City” while 60 Penn police officers patrolled Penn. The University increased its security budget to $675,000 (around $4 million adjusted for inflation) and hired former PPD officer Merle Smithas Superintendent of Safety. Like today, Penn police coordinated directly with the City’s notoriously racist police department while fortifying Penn’s growing hold on West Philly.
In the late 80s, state and federal legislation required universities to maintain an open crime log, feeding the narrative of runaway crime and today mandating the 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, Vice President for Public Safety then and now, recruited “many of her best colleagues from Philadelphia Police to Penn.” Penn’s ties to Philadelphia Police run deep. Over the decades, the City has spent millions of dollars in settlements and lawsuits, and despite the dozens of police shootings of unarmed Black men, 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, 72 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 Street neighborhood. On a daily basis, UPPD pursues a strategy called saturation policing by abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, greatly increasing the number of police within the “Penn Patrol Zone.” Under Police Superintendent Maureen 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.”
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 nonwhite.