Fighting Crime and Bias

Public Safety | To protect against bias-based profiling—or the appearance of it—Penn’s police department should improve officer training and increase interactions with the community, according to an ad-hoc committee formed to look at this issue.

President Rodin requested a review of police policies and practices last fall after the pepper-spraying and arrest of Rui DaSilva, an associate faculty master of Spruce College House. DaSilva, an Angolan-born U.S. citizen, was bringing donated bikes to the Quadrangle on October 11 when he and a friend were stopped by an officer who thought the bikes were stolen.

“The possibility that bias may exist, and the very real fact that innocent persons can and will be stopped by police, even as part of legitimate police duties, make protection against biased-based profiling an important responsibility of any police department,” the ad hoc committee stated in its report, which was released in April. Dr. Dennis Culhane, professor of social welfare policy and psychology in the School of Social Work, chaired the nine-member group of faculty and administrators.

Among its findings and recommendations:

The department’s own bias-based profiling policy is “largely consistent” with national standards, but it needs to describe more explicitly how racial and ethnic stereotypes can influence officers’ judgment.

Some of the department’s training materials may inadvertently teach stereotyping by distinguishing minority groups from each other on the basis of stereotypic behaviors, communication styles, and attitudes toward authority. Training should be provided annually, and to all new police officers; content should be periodically reviewed with experts in cultural-diversity issues.

The department’s policy of collecting descriptive information about all pedestrian and car stops is “consistent with the best practices of the field,” but it could be improved by a comprehensive annual review of aggregate and officer-level data.

Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety, calls the committee’s work “very fair and overall very complimentary of the Division of Public Safety,” adding that “We’re taking their suggestions and are moving forward to ensure we implement the best policies.” (The full report is available at www.public safety.upenn.edu/.)

“It’s real easy to be a police officer at Mayberry RFD, but this isn’t Mayberry,” Rush adds. “It’s a unique area that swells to 100,000 people at some times of the day. And we’re very proud of what our men and women do.”

According to Rush, a five-year diversity-training plan will be developed for all Public Safety employees. This training will be cumulative and sequential, building upon the previous year’s lessons.

“I don’t believe, nor does the ad hoc committee believe, any racial profiling is going on,” Rush says. “The training will enhance skill sets that are already there and continue to make [attention to this issue] a priority.”

In addition, three student groups will be trained to accept and forward citizens’ complaints to the police.

The department also will assign a detective as liaison to each of the college houses and assign police supervisors specific patrol-zone responsibilities throughout campus, so people know exactly whom to contact when questions or concerns arise. A citizens-feedback telephone line has been set up as well.

Another, less measurable goal is to put a human face on the police through ordinary daily interactions. “We need to break down that faŃade of ‘You’re a police officer, I shouldn’t speak to you,’” Rush says. “We aren’t just policing the community. We are the community.” S.F.

 

© 2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

 



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