Police Free Penn wants more than just the abolition of the Penn Police.
Since the formation of the organization in June of 2020, its mission has centered on more than just a police–free campus: Police Free Penn envisions an abolitionist future. Reinvesting in West Philadelphia and beyond, reimagining police–free strategies, and redressing the legacies of racism, colonialism, and slavery at Penn are the first steps to such a future. And Police Free Penn says it's making strides.
Maureen Rush, the current Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of Penn Police, recently announced that she will retire at the end of December this year. Rush has also served as the president of the Philadelphia Police Foundation, an organization that helps raise funds for critical equipment, technology, training, and innovating programs for the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), since 2012. She has been widely criticized by both Police Free Penn and Penn Community for Justice because of her hand in militarizing the PPD. Under her presidency at the PPF, Philadelphia police were able to purchase long guns and related equipment for the SWAT unit, drones for use by police pilots, and state—of—the—art ballistic helmets for the elite tactical SWAT team unit according to the organization LittleSis.
Rush was also heavily criticized for interrupting a University Council Open Forum while a student was giving a speech about paid time off on Election Day. During the speech, Rush appeared to say "F**k you, bitch" to a student speaker. Although both she and the University maintain that the words were not intended for the student, the community still had concerns about why she was attending to other matters during the forum and using such language in a professional setting.
In its mission, Police Free Penn is clear that the abolition of the Penn Police is not enough to remedy the violence police cause as an institution—both on Penn's campus and in Philadelphia at large. The organization doesn't want to just reform the system but transform it. That’s why Maureen Rush’s retirement isn’t a celebratory victory for Kay M. (SP2 '19), one of the members of Police Free Penn that Street spoke to who would like to only go by their last initial for fear of retribution.
“It’s good to see that [Rush] will no longer be there,” she says, “however, it can be assumed then that whoever fills [Rush’s] role will occupy it in the same way with the same ideologies.”
“The whole point of naming Rush [on Police Free Penn's Medium page] as an individual was about accountability," says another Police Free Penn member who prefers to remain anonymous. They explain that whoever comes into Rush's position next will create the same structural issues of policing; the role is about how they’re impacting students of color and the community of civilians that sits just beyond campus.
A pillar of Police Free Penn's activism is spreading awareness about the role of the Penn Police in West Philadelphia. More importantly, though, PFP is set on disrupting a long–held narrative: that Penn Police makes Penn and Philly writ large safer.
On May 31, 2020, Penn Police faced heavy criticism for targeting peaceful protestors during a Black Lives Matter protest at 52nd Street. Penn and Drexel police responded to a call for backup, donning tactical gear and shields. Community members were teargassed, and although both officials from Penn Police and Drexel Police say that officers did not use tear gas, Penn Police was present to respond and back up the Philadelphia Police Department outside of their jurisdiction, assisting police officers who did tear gas protesters.
“Penn Police are not just standing at the corner of 34th and Walnut asking you to get off of your bike. Penn Police are actively policing community members in West Philadelphia and cultivating a culture of fear for Penn students,” said Jane Robbins Mize (SP2 '27).
Though Rush did not respond to comment individually and administration refused to speak directly about Police Free Penn, Stephen MacCarthy, Vice President for University Communications, redirected Street to Penn’s “Response to Public Safety and Outreach Initiative Report” from April 2021. The report outlines four vague goals to address police violence and “complaints” of over–policing: transparency, accountability, reimagining public safety and reducing policing, and reinvestment.
Penn hopes to achieve increased transparency with the community by "making more information and documents public and easily accessible to the Penn and West Philadelphia communities." In regards to accountability and reimagining public safety, Penn planned to implement new independent supervision and increase input from West Philadelphia residents while developing new strategies that decrease Penn Police presence. Lastly, Penn pledged to "re–invest" in campus and West Philly initiatives that promote safety and belonging sans police.
The University posted an update on these initiatives written by Rush on September 21, 2021. The Department of Public Safety launched the DPS Transparency site, which includes documents that detail the type and number of Penn Police equipment and vehicles on patrol alongside a memorandum of understanding between Penn Police and PPD. Other initiatives highlighted in the report include expanded seats on the DPS Advisory Board for "members of West Philadelphia neighborhood" and a seat for the University Wellness Officer, Benoit Dubé.
As part of their reimagine goals, DPS launched the "New Co–Responder Pilot," which consists of a Counseling and Psychological Services counselor riding with a police officer in "soft uniform" to respond to mental health crises specifically. It's debatable whether or not this pilot substantially meets the goal of reducing police personnel or redefines what an officer looks like on campus.
But Police Free Penn wants Penn students to understand that abolition includes more than dismantling Penn Police. As Jane puts it: “Abolition doesn't just mean removing police ... We have to build the infrastructure that will allow people to keep one another safe, allow people to thrive, to have good paying jobs, to have stable and secure housing, to have access to food, to have meaningful community centers, [and] to have reliable and free childcare.”
That's why Police Free Penn is piloting a mutual aid initiative. The initiative will collect funds from Penn–affiliated faculty, staff, students, and alumni and distribute these funds to locally led partner initiatives whose work bolsters their mission of prefiguring an abolitionist world.
“[PFP Mutual Aid] kind of came out from all of us seeing the way that Penn is acquiring property and displacing and residents,” says Kay.
In October 2021, Altman Management Company didn't renew its affordable housing contract with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Renewal. As a result, long–time residents of the University City Townhomes located at 39th and Market streets—located in between Penn and Drexel, which are gentrifying the area—will be displaced. Police Free Penn says it has been working on pressing the University to intervene against the sale of the UC Townhomes and indicates that the purchase would further the university's record of driving away Black families.
Ultimately, what Penn students need to know about Police Free Penn is that the organization isn't just working to reduce police presence on Penn's campus and in West Philly. They're working to dismantle systems of oppression throughout our community.