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Growing up in Mantua, De’wayne Drummond’s grandmother always warned him never to wear a hoodie when he walked to the El. He didn’t understand why at the time, but since then it’s become clear: she feared for his life. Over the last few decades in his West Philadelphia neighborhood, police presence has multiplied.
“As I became a man and saw the different things that happen to young Black men and women, that we have to be cautious just because of the color of our skin, it’s sad,” Drummond said. “It shouldn’t be like that.”
The stretch of University City between Mantua and Kingsessing is inundated with local law enforcement.
In addition to patrols from the 16th and 18th PPD districts, there are the Penn and Drexel police — both armed forces — as well as unarmed officers employed by the University City District. Near 30th Street Station, neighbors also come across Amtrak and SEPTA officers walking the Market Street corridor.
MAP: Overlapping patrol districts in University City
For Black residents, faculty and students, the heavy police presence can be intimidating. Even if law enforcement officers are on their best behavior, residents navigate their neighborhoods knowing that Black people are far more likely to be killed by police.
“It almost feels like you’re just guilty for wandering your neighborhood, because you’re constantly being monitored,” said Mantua native Tanya Heath, who lives just outside the Drexel patrol zone.
There are 45 officers patrolling nearly two and a half square miles around Drexel’s campus. The University of Pennsylvania police, the second largest college force in the country (Temple has the largest), deploy 121 officers between 30th and 43rd. Then there’s the University City District, whose force clocked 120,000 neighborhood patrol hours in 2018.
“Any Philly person is very aware when they’re in the University City bubble,” Penn alum Gina Dukes, who grew up in Southwest Philly, told Billy Penn.
Heath agreed, noting she measures her walking commute to Cavanaughs, where she’s a bartender, by counting the officers she passes — one on Market Street, another two blocks later and then a third on the next corner.
“If I don’t have a backpack or something that looks like books, you start to feel as though you’re the outsider and you’re being overwatched,” Heath said. “I’ve had that happen a few times.”
Students worry about being targeted
The Penn crime log indicates that the university police force responds to incidents within their zone at least every few days, sometimes more frequently.
Superintendent of Penn Police Maureen Rush touts the department’s response to 250 emergency calls each month — relieving the pressure for the Philly police districts in the area.
“Our business is students,” Rush said in an interview. “We need to ensure we’re doing everything we can to make sure the environment on and around Penn is safe. We’re attracting the best and the brightest researchers, who are hopefully going to cure cancer and find a solution for COVID.”
During nationwide calls to defund the police, some students and community members have taken aim at Penn’s force.
A report by university administrators in 2004 showed their most common target was Black people, which at the time made up 8% of Penn’s student body, compared to 30% or 80% of surrounding neighborhoods.
During her 25 years leading the force, Superintendent Rush said, she’s tried to make changes to address that sentiment. She created an advisory board of faculty and students, and earned the department accreditation from CALEA, a public safety training organization.
But Dukes, who graduated in 2016 with an urban studies degree, said the bias was still palpable.
“Black students on campus don’t feel safe at times,” Dukes said. “It feels like we always are judged and actually checked to see if we actually go to the school. A lot of Black students wear a lot of Penn paraphernalia a lot to signify, like, ‘I go to this university.'”
A Drexel spokesperson emphasized that the university’s police force undergoes an external review every two years, and is setting up a new task force to examine systemic racism in its community policing.
Mantua resident Heath did say she feels safer walking to work at Cavanaugh’s than she did a decade ago. Likewise, Dukes called the Penn police her freshman year for a safe walk home from a party.
As the president of the Mantua Civic Association, Drummond, whose grandmother warned him, said he’s welcomed Drexel and Philly police officers to his community meetings to work out issues firsthand.
He remains cautious, particularly under the current circumstances.
“Especially with the climate, with what’s going on in this nation, you have mixed feelings,” Drummond said. “Am I going to be protected, or am I going to be harmed?”