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.”