The Trouble with Police-Community Relations: Sunday in West Philly Edition

Campus cops have trouble taking a complaint.


I spent the afternoon in West Philly near but not on the University of Pennsylvania campus. On my back to my car I noticed a Penn campus police car double parked in front of my car, pulling someone else over or something. I didn't understand why the cop didn't just pull in behind the car he pulled over and was covering the bike lane and even in the street a bit. It wasn't going to be a big deal but then a second Penn campus cop car pulled up and parked next to me and behind me, cutting off the space in front of me to pull and blocking me from an easy way to pull out. I backed up half the block and then the second cop, out of his car now, turned and gave me this look like I was the one doing something inconsiderate and not him. I always found the idea of campus cops patrolling the area slightly comical though I know it's not comical for the people in the unfortunate position of living in a neighborhood where they have to deal with not just one unaccountable police force, the Philly police, which at least nominally answer to the democratically elected government and thus the people, but two. I decided to use this strange behavior I saw as an opportunity to see how Penn Police deal with complaints and concerns.

Not good. I found a number for Penn security and got put through to a Corporal Palmer. First he asked if I was calling about Penn Police or Penn security. The ones with the police cars and lights wasn't a good enough answer even though my understanding is Penn security is basically a contracted security service. I consulted the photos I took and told him it was Penn Police. The number I called, however, was from the Penn security website. I explain to the Corporal what I saw and that I thought it was creating a traffic hazard needlessly and he asked what my gripe was if I got out of the spot fine. I told him I thought it reflected poorly on police-community relations and wanted to complain. He told me he was going to tell me to have a nice day and hung up.

I called back again later, to offer him a chance to clarify his comments after I decided this was an illustrative example of how deceptively simple "improving police-community relations" is as a "solution" to police brutality—if Palmer had a friendlier demeanor, would that have made a difference? Early on, before I even spoke with Palmer, a dispatcher told me if two cop cars were pulled over there then two cop cars had to be pulled over there to do what they needed to do. I've heard this before, when calling local police departments about Essex County (N.J.) sheriff's cars speeding through neighborhoods in Newark and South Orange without their lights or sirens on. It's what they're supposed to be doing, I'm always told—until they kill someone and can't fudge the evidence. The cops I saw today, though, weren't from some other government, but the local university. When operating off campus and getting in the way of the everyday lives of people who have no affiliation with the university, that cavalier "bend to our will" kind of attitude appears even more ridiculous on its face than usual for a "democratic society." Luckily, reducing police brutality doesn't necessarily require "better police-community relations," just tighter rules of engagement and higher disciplinary standards for police officers, not just when they shoot and kill but in the totality of their interactions with the community.

When I called Palmer a second time, he actually asked who I was. I introduced myself and told him I write for Reason and wanted to give him a chance to clarify his earlier comments. He says to me: "You don't have any questions for me." I asked him what he meant and he repeated it, then asked how he could help me. I told him it's hard to help someone when you tell them they don't have any questions and he explained he meant he wouldn't answer any of my questions. I asked him why he hung up on me the first time—he denied it. I asked him whether there was a formal process for filing a complaint. I asked him why he didn't tell me this the first time and he said I didn't ask for that information. He told me I could come in to file a complaint. "With you?" I asked, incredulously. He said I could talk to his supervisor then. Only after that did he inform me there was actually a website (he didn't give me a link but I can Google) where you could file a formal complaint. I asked him again why he didn't tell me this the first time and he said it wasn't what I was calling about. While I explained to him that it actually was what I was calling about when he hung up on me, he hung up on me again. I called the number a third time, this time telling the dispatcher I didn't actually have to speak with Palmer again but just wanted to confirm he had hung up on me mid-sentence. The dispatcher told me Palmer told him to tell me he gave me all the information I needed.

If this is the way Penn Police respond to a complaint from someone who saw something he considered inconsiderate of police to do (I call police about this kind of stuff pretty regularly, and have never not been pretty immediately told the proper procedure to file a complaint)—and the corporal whose job it is is to sit at the window and talk to the public and take phone calls all day can't muster a little more friendliness, even after the person he's talking to identifies themselves as a member of the press, how do you imagine Penn Police respond to the complaints of people, not affiliated with Penn, whose lives they interfere with on a daily basis? I'm interested in learning more about how these police-community relations work. I attended a Freddie Gray rally in Philly several weeks ago. There were many Penn students there. Perhaps they could find a police reform goal closer to home: keeping their campus police on campus and out of everyone else's lives.