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Secretive Campus Cops Patrol Already Overpoliced Neighborhoods

Campus police forces have become more professionalized, but critics say they operate behind a veil of secrecy and often exceed their jurisdiction.

A Temple University police officer.
Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Video still via Temple University Campus Safety

Secretive Campus Cops Patrol Already Overpoliced Neighborhoods

Campus police forces have become more professionalized, but critics say they operate behind a veil of secrecy and often exceed their jurisdiction.


In 2011, a police cruiser slammed into Walter Johnson on the edge of Drexel University’s West Philadelphia campus, crushing his legs against a retaining wall. Police were pursuing Johnson as a suspect in connection with an attempted burglary—but the men who had pinned Johnson against the wall were not city cops. They worked for the university.

Around the country, campus police forces have grown larger and more professionalized. Gone are the campus watchmen and rent-a-cops of days past, replaced with sworn officers drawn from state-accredited police academies and equipped with badges, guns, squad cars, tactical units, and arrest powers.

The growth of campus police is now encountering significant pushback. Earlier this year, Johns Hopkins University announced its support for legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that would allow independent institutions in Baltimore to form their own police departments; the announcement was greeted by protesters who chanted “No justice /no peace /no private police.”

Student concerns are shared by public defenders in Philadelphia, a city with high crime and several large universities where campus police are a common sight. They say university cops often exceed their jurisdiction by patrolling already overpoliced, majority African American neighborhoods adjacent to urban campuses. And there is evidence that college cops serve up two different versions of justice—one for students and one for the residents next door.

Civil rights groups say these privately run departments operate behind a veil of secrecy, enjoying the benefits of police power with far less accountability to the public.

“These are police forces with the same powers of force and search and arrest as [city] cops,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It is shocking that we give guns and those powers to police forces that have no obligation to be transparent.”

Temple University has the largest university police department in the country, with roughly 130 sworn officers, supervisors, and detectives patrolling an area spanning a little more than half of a square mile. For comparison, the entire city of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, home to about 40,000 residents, employs just 77 officers.

With legal jurisdiction over residential blocks within 500 yards of campus, six police stations and mini-stations, its own police academy, and an emergency dispatch center, the Temple University Police Department resembles a department in a midsize city in more ways than one. But there is a key difference: Temple administrators have kept many departmental records secret, citing its status as a privately run institution.

It’s level of secrecy that exceeds the municipal police, who are far from transparent. In 2016, two former Temple police officers, Aaron Wright and Marquis Robinson, were arrested for cuffing and fatally torturing Wright’s girlfriend, Joyce Quaweay. Robinson was fired after his arrest, but Temple police officials had asked Wright to resign years earlier. A Temple spokesperson declined to provide The Appeal with an explanation for the department’s request for Wright’s resignation but insisted that misconduct complaints lodged against its police are “investigated and handled in accordance with departmental policy.” But the spokesperson would not say who investigated these incidents and refused to release any complaint or disciplinary records for any campus officers.

These private security forces have followed student populations into neighborhoods surrounding urban campuses as cities have gentrified and one public defender, who has not been authorized to speak on the record, said university police today regularly exceeded their legal jurisdictions with little consequence. The attorney said university cops treat students and non-students differently when it comes to low-level crime—that freshmen carrying drugs or drinking underage will often get a pass from campus cops, while teens from surrounding neighborhoods were more likely to get arrested.

“They treat non-students differently,” he said. “I think they perceive their role as protecting the kiddies and their tuition money from black criminality…I don’t know that a police report for a Temple student being arrested by Temple police has ever crossed my desk. The Temple Police are often hundreds of yards off campus but within their legal buffer zone making arrests that have no connection to the university.”

Michael Mellon, another attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, noted that university arrests were just a sliver of his office’s overall caseload. But he said the lack of transparency at these agencies meant it was hard to say for certain which incidents officers were being instructed to refer for prosecution and which they ignored.

“University police have made it very hard for us to know what internal paperwork they generate, like what their directives are, what training their officers get, and so on,” he said “I think there is an open question about what they hand over to the Philadelphia police and what they don’t.”

Although it’s difficult to prove who isn’t being arrested, some data, released by the universities themselves, suggests this may be the case.

While reporting requirements for these departments are minimal, federal legislation does require that campus police release baseline crime and arrest statistics. A review of Temple University records from 2015 through 2017 reveals that just 2.2 percent of alcohol and drug-related incidents that occured on campus or in student buildings resulted in arrests. The rest were referred to university officials for internal “disciplinary action.”

But on the streets surrounding the university, 50 percent of drug and alcohol incidents resulted in arrests by campus police.

Similar records from other large universities in Philadelphia—the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel—largely mirrored this pattern of policing. This means that drug and alcohol related offenses are effectively decriminalized for students but bring harsh consequences for non-student populations.

Although mostly occupied with arrests for minor thefts, University of Pennsylvania arrest summaries from the past three months also showed campus police making multiple arrests for probation or parole violations. Pennsylvania’s state supervision system has been criticized for disproportionately subjecting Black and Latinx people to arrests over minor violations, drawing increased public scrutiny after the jailing of rapper Meek Mill over a one such offense. A 2018 Columbia Justice Lab study found that the state had the highest number and rate of parole supervision in the country, and one of the highest rates of supervision in the world.

A 2004 report by the University of Pennsylvania administrators after a racist on-campus incident also showed that stops by campus police were far more likely to impact its Black neighbors than students enrolled at the Ivy League university. The report found that its police were most likely to stop, search, and arrest African Americans, compared to other groups. Just 8 percent of the student body is Black, while surrounding census tracts are anywhere from 30 to 80 percent African American.

Maureen Rush, the vice president for public safety at Penn, refused to answer any questions about the school’s policing protocols.

But incidents of campus cops exceeding their jurisdiction or engaging in broken windows style policing of neighbors represent a tiny sliver of all arrests in a big city, and go largely undocumented because of the lack of transparency or a real disciplinary process at their departments. Filing a lawsuit is often the only form of redress, as in the case of a driver fatally shot by University of Cincinnati police or the alleged baton beating of a suspect being chased by University of Pennsylvania officers.

In potentially criminal matters, like an officer-involved shooting death on Portland State University’s campus in June, grand juries have been just as loath to indict campus cops as their municipal counterparts.

Bob Levant, a lawyer who eventually won a court settlement over Walter Johnson being crushed by a Drexel University police car in 2011, said it was outrageous that private police forces were empowered to patrol public spaces with few avenues for accountability.

“Any time a municipality or a university is overseeing an armed police force, the discipline process and its results should be publicly available to assist in public oversight and transparency,” he said. “They’re patrolling city streets. The public has a right to know what their disciplinary process is and what discipline is meted out.”

Washington State's death penalty ruled racially biased, unconstitutional

Washington State's death penalty ruled racially biased, unconstitutional


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Washington State’s death penalty ruled racially biased, unconstitutional

  • Prisons crack down on an opioid treatment, endangering lives

  • The Appeal Podcast Episode 18: How activists brought down the most powerful man in Chicago

  • Ohio voters have a chance to ‘deal a blow’ to mass incarceration this November

  • Massachusetts court throws out thousands of convictions tainted by corrupt lab chemist

  • New Alabama report recommends eliminating court fines and fees

  • Kansas detective accused of coercing poor women into sex and giving false evidence

In the Spotlight

Washington State’s death penalty ruled racially biased, unconstitutional

Yesterday, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment, as applied in Washington, violates the state Constitution. It held that the death penalty has been imposed in an unlawfully “arbitrary and racially biased manner” and “fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.” The court converted all death sentences to life imprisonment. The ruling was unanimous and, because it is based on the state Constitution, it cannot be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. [Mark Joseph Stern / Slate]

Washington’s Constitution bars “cruel punishment,” a provision that has been interpreted as more expansive than the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even so, in 2012, the court upheld the death penalty, noting it had seen “no evidence that racial discrimination pervades the imposition of capital punishment in Washington.” This led a death row prisoner’s attorneys to commission a study by Katherine Beckett, an expert on race and criminal sentencing. Beckett’s study analyzed the imposition of capital punishment in the state from 1981 to 2014 and found that Black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants. Further, prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in counties with larger Black populations. “Most prosecutors in the state have stopped seeking the death penalty, so all current capital sentences arise from just six of Washington’s 39 counties,” writes Mark Joseph Stern for Slate. “The location of your crime may therefore determine whether you live or die. This ‘random’ and ‘capricious’ application of the ultimate punishment, the court ruled, fatally undermines any state interest [in] ‘retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders.’” [Mark Joseph Stern / Slate]

This ruling has called to mind the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia, which found that the death penalty, as applied, violated the Eighth Amendment. The principal concern of the Court was that the death penalty was being administered arbitrarily. The case put a temporary moratorium on the death penalty. Various states then responded to the ruling by tailoring their laws to satisfy the concerns expressed by the Court, by instituting discretionary devices to help guide juries or by eliminating discretion and imposing mandatory death sentences for certain crimes. (The Court later ruled that the mandatory sentencing system did not sufficiently address the Furman concerns.) Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court upheld death sentences, finding that “the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution.” The moratorium was over. [Dawinder S. Sidhu / West Virginia Law Review]

The Washington decision seemed to many like a second chance at McCleskey v. Kemp, a decision that has been called the “Dred Scott decision of our time.” In McCleskey, the Supreme Court refused to hear statistical evidence of race discrimination in the application of the death penalty and, as a result, severely restricted the ability for minority plaintiffs to succeed on equal protection claims. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not allow defendants to challenge a death sentence by showing solid statistical evidence that the system as a whole is biased: “[T]o prevail under the Equal Protection Clause, [a defendant] must prove the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose.” The ruling in McCleskey created a bar that was “impossible to meet,” according to a death-row litigator in Durham, North Carolina. “No one since … has succeeded in a claim of race discrimination,” the lawyer said. In his dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. characterized the majority’s reluctance to consider the evidence of discrimination as “a fear of too much justice.” Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision, was asked by his biographer if there was a vote he would change if he could. His response: “McCleskey v. Kemp.” [Adam Liptak / New York Times]

The Court also rejected the argument that Warren McCleskey’s sentence was cruel and unusual punishment because there is a “constitutionally permissible range of discretion.” Even though sentencing discretion must be limited “so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action,” juries must be afforded some discretion, based on the circumstances of the crime and the defendant. The disparities in sentencing shown by the studies, Justice Powell argued, were an “inevitable” cost of jury discretion. “Implicit in this holding is the view that maintaining jury discretion is a more important value than eliminating race discrimination in capital sentencing,” writes professor Phyllis Goldfarb. [Phyllis Goldfarb / New York University Review of Law & Social Change]

In a recent law review paper, professor Reva Siegel commemorated the 30th anniversary of McCleskey, presenting historical evidence showing that the decision “was responsive to conservative claims of the era about race, rights, and courts.” But Siegel points out that a close reading of the decision has prompted some courts to limit the McCleskey restrictions to the particular concerns of that case, which could open the door to admitting statistical evidence of bias in other situations. She concludes, “Three decades of living with McCleskey teaches that it is important to design remedies for bias in the criminal justice system that do not depend solely on judges for their implementation.” [Reva Siegel / Northwestern Law Review] In the Washington State case, however, it seems that judges were enough.

Stories From The Appeal

Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Appeal Podcast Episode 18: How Activists Brought Down the Most Powerful Man in Chicago. Two pieces of news have rocked Chicago: Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he will not seek a third term and the conviction of a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the killing of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. Writer Kelly Hayes talks about the lessons Chicago holds for activists throughout the country. [Adam H. Johnson]

Prison Crack Down on an Opioid Treatment, Endangering Lives. Few of the prisons trying to stem the flow of contraband Suboxone offer substantial opioid treatment programs. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

Ohio voters have a chance to ‘deal a blow’ to mass incarceration in November: Next month, Ohio residents will vote on Issue 1, a ballot initiative that could “deal a blow to the war on drugs and mass incarceration,” according to German Lopez of Vox. It would “reduce drug possession offenses to misdemeanors, so they are no longer classified as felonies with harsher penalties” and would “then use the money saved (because the state wouldn’t lock up as many people) on addiction treatment and crime victim funds.” It would also allow most prisoners, except for those convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation, to “reduce their prison sentences by participating in prison rehabilitation programs.” Ohio Issue 1, which has received funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Open Society Policy Center, and the Open Philanthropy Project, is a constitutional amendment and would take precedence over standard legislation. [German Lopez / Vox]

Massachusetts court throws out thousands of convictions tainted by corrupt lab chemist: The highest court in Massachusetts vacated thousands of drug convictions based on drug tests tainted by the misconduct of a rogue state chemist and two former prosecutors. (The prosecutors now work at other state agencies.) The court ordered the dismissal of every case involving methamphetamine during the nine years that former state chemist Sonja Farak worked at the Amherst lab, and every case analyzed at the lab from 2009 until Farak’s arrest in January 2013. Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to tampering with evidence and received a sentence of 18 months’ incarceration. In April, Massachusetts prosecutors agreed to dismiss all cases Farak had analyzed herself, about 11,000, saying it was unnecessary to vacate any more. But yesterday’s court ruling does just that. Between Farak and another former state chemist who tampered with drug samples, prosecutors have thrown out nearly 40,000 drug convictions. Most of those affected have already served their sentences but face the collateral consequences of a drug conviction. [Shawn Musgrave and John R. Ellement / Boston Globe]

New Alabama report recommends eliminating court fines and fees: A new report on the impact of Alabama court fines and fees says a “disjointed court system and counterproductive punitive measures contribute to an ‘escalating cycle’ disproportionately pressuring poor and black Alabamians while creating more public safety risks,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser. Published by advocacy group Alabama Appleseed and others, “the report found that a statewide aversion to raising revenue through taxes or other mechanisms has placed undue pressure on court systems to collect their own revenues.” And “poverty penalties” impose escalating fines for those who cannot afford the original court fine. “As a practical matter, Alabama should not fund its state government on the backs of poor people,” the report states. “As a matter of conscience, we should not tolerate a system that forces people to choose between paying for basic necessities like food and medicine, and paying their court debt.” Half of the nearly 1,000 Alabamians surveyed had served jail time for failure to pay court debt. [Melissa Brown / Montgomery Advertiser]

Kansas detective accused of coercing poor women into sex and into giving false evidence: “A man deemed wrongfully convicted for a double murder in Kansas City, Kansas, more than two decades ago has filed a lawsuit against the city and police for alleged sexual coercion and fabricated statements that led to his arrest,” according to the Kansas City Star. “For decades, the Kansas City Police Department permitted Detective Roger Golubski to terrorize an entire community—by using his badge to extort sexual favors from poor black women and by coercing and manipulating those women into providing fabricated evidence to close his cases,” the lawsuit said. A spokesperson for the police department said that police were reviewing the lawsuit and would issue a statement this week. [Kaitlyn Schwers / Kansas City Star]

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

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At Angola Prison, ‘People Are Suffering. People Are Dying’

Trial begins in class action suit alleging medical neglect by Louisiana State Penitentiary.

msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Angola Prison, ‘People Are Suffering. People Are Dying’

Trial begins in class action suit alleging medical neglect by Louisiana State Penitentiary.


“[T]he Louisiana State Penitentiary’s delivery of medical care is one of the worst we have ever reviewed.” That’s what two doctors and a nurse practitioner concluded in a report prepared for a trial that started this week stemming from a 2015 class action lawsuit.

Dr. Michael Puisis, an expert in correctional medicine, argued on the stand Wednesday that Louisiana State Penitentiary, known colloquially as Angola, had long neglected its duty to keep prisoners safe. A large part of that, he testified, was the failure of the Louisiana Department of Corrections to implement a system to review prisoner deaths or physician errors. “If you don’t look for problems, you don’t find them,” Puisis said.

A group of individually named prisoners, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU of Louisiana, the Advocacy Center of Louisiana, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, and the Promise of Justice Initiative, brought the class action suit against the prison and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety. It alleges that, for a quarter of a century, they have run an unconstitutional healthcare system for the 6,000 people incarcerated in Angola.

“People are suffering. People are dying,” said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative and lead counsel on the case. “It is our sincerest hope that this suit will ensure that the state of Louisiana treats all its people with basic decency and in accordance with the Constitution.”

The 90-page medical report discussed in court Wednesday describes delays, denials of treatment, inadequate care, and a lack of accountability for physicians, violating rights guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment. In one case involving a prisoner who was a double-amputee suffering from necrosis, for instance, Puisis told the court he had “never seen that extent of dead tissue in a patient.” Another patient, since deceased, went 16 months without a biopsy for a mass in his lung that turned out to be cancer.

Puisis also pointed to the near doubling of mortality rates in Louisiana state prisons, from 361 per 100,000 prisoners in 2001 to 628 in 2013 (the last year data is available), which is the highest death rate of prisoners in the country. The number, the experts explained, could not be attributed solely to the prison’s aging population. The state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections declined to comment on the trial, noting that it does not “comment on pending litigation.”

An exhibit in the case.
Courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

At Angola, the average prisoner age is just over 40, and the average sentence is in excess of 90 years, far beyond the prisoners’ expected life spans. The vast majority of prisoners are assigned to “hard labor,” working the 18,000 acres of crops, bending and toiling outside all day in all weather. The plaintiffs say these conditions all contribute to the current healthcare crisis. Puisis said the fact that the mortality rate nearly doubled over ten years suggests “something is happening in Louisiana that is really amiss.”

Puisis said the problems start with the process of evaluating prisoners for health issues. He said EMTs make the initial evaluation for “sick calls,” which often occur in the middle of the night when prisoners who want to see a physician for any reason are required to present themselves for a preliminary exam. Prisoners with chronic and painful health problems are also frequently denied narcotics, he noted, because of misdiagnosis or because staff don’t believe the prisoners are in pain.

Puisis and his colleagues also called into question the quality of the staff. Louisiana guidelines permit the Department of Corrections to hire physicians with restricted licenses and, according to the report and publicly available information, the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners had at some point suspended or restricted the licenses of all the physicians at Angola when the report was written.

The current director of medical services, Dr. Randy Lavespere, had his license suspended from 2006 to 2014 based on his felony conviction for possession with intent to distribute meth. According to the medical examiners board and as noted in the expert report, he was diagnosed with an unspecified personality disorder and has testified previously that he thinks half of his patients are faking their symptoms. As the report documents, other doctors on staff had their licenses suspended or restricted for concerns like sexual misconduct, drug and alcohol dependency, and a federal conviction for selling human growth hormone. Lavespere is in charge of monitoring all of the other doctors, which Puisis argued presents an inherent risk to patient safety.

Puisis also blasted the prison for an official policy allowing prisoners to be punished for “aggravated malingering,” a label applied to people who are deemed by staff to have requested unnecessary healthcare. “Medical staff shouldn’t be assigning punishment,” Puisis testified, because it violates agreed-upon standards for correctional health care. “It’s inappropriate, unprofessional and perverse,” he elaborated under cross-examination.

Earlier in his testimony Wednesday, Puisis raised concerns over the prison’s funding. From 2001-13, Angola spent less than half as much on healthcare per prisoner than the average for prisons nationwide. Puisis said administrators at Angola were unable to provide a line-item budget on its spending.

Puisis’s report provides context that could bolster the case brought by the named plaintiffs, who represent some of the most egregious cases of medical neglect. Otto Barrera, who lost most of his lower jaw in a 2012 shooting before arriving at Angola, appeared in the courtroom in shackles on Wednesday. Barrera was referred for reconstructive surgery in 2014 on his missing bottom lip and tongue, but Angola’s administration denied the procedure. Because he cannot chew his food, he is supposed to be on a soft diet. But, according to the complaint, he continues to receive the same meals as other prisoners, which he must tear into small pieces and painfully chew.

Advocates say the lawsuit highlights a problem plaguing Louisiana’s prisons overall: too many prisoners who are aging during their extremely long sentences. “This lawsuit should remind legislators that Louisiana is at a crossroads,” Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Experienced, and a member of Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, later told The Appeal. “The state can either spend more money to provide adequate healthcare or it can incarcerate fewer people.”

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