More Police on Campus Won’t Prevent Gun Violence

Instead, urban universities should reckon with long-standing failures to prioritize the well-being of their communities and make meaningful, unconditional investments, Charles H. F. Davis III writes.

February 22, 2022
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Temple University senior Samuel Collington was shot and killed last November during an attempted robbery and carjacking near his North Philadelphia apartment. Collington’s death by gun violence followed the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Philadelphian near Temple’s campus two weeks earlier. Altogether, the City of Brotherly Love saw more than 500 homicides in 2021, the most on record in at least three decades.

The ever-present question in the wake of such a noteworthy increase in violence, especially in this moment of increased public scrutiny, is who—or what—keeps us safe? While the visceral response for many people, perhaps even most, is law enforcement, rest assured the answer surely is not more police.

As a part of the institutional response plan to near-campus violence, Temple University president Jason Wingard pledged to increase the number of campus police by 50 percent. He also committed to working with city officials to increase municipal police patrols near campus. Additional actions include enhancing and expanding safety infrastructure such as lighting, surveillance cameras and emergency phones as well as increasing availability of safe ride and walking escort programs. The plan also notes a general commitment to “aggressively pursue federal and state resources available for safety enhancements.” Given the documented history of colleges’ and universities’ participation in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program—which offers excess military weapons to local police departments—this pledge, without further clarity, is concerning.

Most troubling of all, such a routine response to issues of campus safety and security represents a cyclical mirage of interventions that seldom lead to addressing root causes of the problem. Consider that Temple has maintained personnel and expenditures on policing that are the largest among four-year universities in the nation, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data. But those investments have done very little if anything to curb the rise of gun violence on or near the campus. In no uncertain terms, neither the reported 110 sworn campus police officers nor the more than 6,300 municipal police officers prevented the unfortunate death of Samuel Collington any more than the deaths of 500 other Philadelphians last year.

Part of explaining that paradox is the inconvenient truth that, although arrests for minor infractions not linked to public safety may increase, more policing does not necessarily lessen violent crime. By and large, police exist as an investigative entity after incidents have already occurred, and the efficacy of their investigations is questionable. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation clearing data, police do not solve substantial numbers of reported violent crimes: about 38 percent of reported murders, 47 percent of aggravated assaults, 66 percent of rapes and 70 percent of robberies go unsolved.

If policing is not the answer, what is? At best, strong communities with the necessary resources can prevent, intervene in and de-escalate harmful situations. That requires an investment in educational opportunity and workforce infrastructure as preventative measures for reducing crimes.

Thus, at a minimum, Philadelphia’s higher education and postsecondary institutions—including university hospital systems—should be making payments in lieu of taxes, or what’s called PILOTs, to support the city tax base necessary for better resourcing local schools and other social services. But given their nonprofit, tax-exempt status combined with a lack of PILOT agreements with the city, area universities have retained billions of dollars that could have been used instead for the broader good of their local communities. (Of course, this issue is not unique to Philadelphia: Davarian Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, noted in a recent interview that communities across the country are calling for PILOTs or community benefits agreements, legally binding agreements in which developers commit to certain community investments.)

What’s more, colleges and universities often overly rely on campus police to respond to student mental and emotional health issues as well as incidents of campus sexual violence—issues and incidents for which most campus police remain seriously ill prepared and extremely overarmed. According to federal campus safety data, zero murder or manslaughter offenses were documented and only one violation involving a weapon was reported at Temple between 2018 and 2020.

That is to say the prevailing assumptions about campus crime, as well as what functions campus police primarily perform, should be interrogated. Surely, a campus police force primarily trained to be the subjective arbiters of what constitutes a crime and whom to consider a criminal on par with municipal departments renders many otherwise non-life-threatening interactions vulnerable to escalation and even serious injury to the people involved. Additionally, the data raise the question of why colleges and universities, including Temple, spend millions of dollars to employ and superfluously arm sworn officers rather than invest in alternatives that create stronger campus and local communities in which policing can be rendered far less relevant if not obsolete.

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Consider the irreparable and long-standing consequences of urban renewal in Philadelphia for which local, private postsecondary institutions are responsible. For example, in the late 1960s, the city leveled the historic Black Bottom neighborhood, displacing thousands of mostly Black residents, to make way for an urban research park known as the University City Sciences Center. A number of higher education institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, were among the organizations that composed the West Philadelphia Corporation that led that mass displacement of people in the area.

Furthermore, what appears to be the imminent sale of the University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia—which, while universities are not directly involved, is the result of increasing property values largely attributable to the institutions composing the University City District—seizes what little affordable housing is left in the city for more profitable alternatives. As noted by the city fire commissioner following a rowhouse fire in Fairmount that killed 12 people last month, the consequences of a lack of safe, affordable housing in Philadelphia have also been fatal.

Temple, meanwhile, has maintained an ongoing extractive relationship with local communities in North Philadelphia, continuing to encroach into surrounding neighborhoods with new development, including expansion plans for a new stadium, despite community organizing efforts to resist that expansion, Temple’s real estate interests in North Philadelphia and failure to pay PILOTs have contributed to the displacement and disenfranchisement of Black communities, and significantly limited the economic mobility and the political agency required for Black people in Philadelphia to exercise their right to self-determination.

These examples from Philadelphia are illustrative of what occurs throughout the country in various urban settings. What is evident in this acute moment of hypervisibility is that such actions are forms of legalized violence against the Black communities in which many urban postsecondary institutions are located. The resulting violence and crime in those communities that impacts university faculty, staff and students is, in many ways, a chicken coming home to roost. As urban universities have continued to help undermine the socioeconomic viability and cultural integrity of vulnerable Black communities, it’s hardly a surprise that what remains reflects the desperate efforts of the people who once lived there to survive.

The often too little, too late “investments” that higher ed institutions have made into their urban communities over the years have been insufficient to make up for their long-standing failure to prioritize the well-being and safety of vulnerable communities. Furthermore, university-initiated public-private partnerships can result in harming the communities that were supposed to benefit. For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported on how UPenn’s partnership with the School District of Philadelphia to establish a highly regarded K-8 school has helped drive up housing prices in West Philadelphia.

What is needed is for institutions to use their political, social and financial capital to act as good stewards and support the unmet needs of everyday people on their own terms—instead of prioritizing the neoliberal interests of university endowments and investment holdings.

That would require, at a minimum, the inclusion of the Black public in institutional decision making beyond the pageantry of town halls and listening sessions, especially when decisions are made that are deeply consequential to the survival of Black neighborhoods. While this certainly includes re-establishing meaningful agreements with cities to make PILOTs moving forward—and some form of past-due reparations for years now gone—it also means relinquishing property ownership, severing quid pro quo developer relationships and halting future acquisitions to allow for Black residents to maintain and grow safe communities with affordable housing.

It also means reducing—and ultimately eliminating—expenditures for the presence of police as well as their jurisdiction to patrol and make arrests, especially without public oversight. It’s clear that the answer to issues of campus-community violence, as well as innumerable other town and gown conflicts, is not more policing. A college or university that focuses largely on systematically protecting white property and primarily white campus stakeholders—ultimately at the expense of the Black communities in which they live, work and learn—can only create further injury. Instead, what are needed are deeper, unconditional investments and resources that allow Black communities themselves to lead in improving their material conditions—and to do so in ways that outside organizations, including higher education institutions, have consistently failed to do.


Inside Higher Ed reached out to Temple University for comment. The university’s written statement is quoted in part below:

Gun violence is a complex issue that unfortunately has impacted so many of us, both here in Philadelphia and across the United States.

While Temple University President Dr. Jason Wingard has announced a commitment to increase its Campus Safety force by 50 percent, that does not mean that these are all sworn law enforcement officers. The university’s approach to solving gun violence is a holistic one and it will continue to invest in, and support, programs that create educational opportunities, economic development, and research regarding substance use disorders, trauma and violence reduction.

The university also said, in relation to the lack of PILOT payments to the city,

Temple is a valuable asset to the city of Philadelphia and provides the city in general—and our North Philadelphia community in particular—with numerous benefits.

Combined, Temple University and Temple Health generate more than $4.7 billion in operations revenue throughout Pennsylvania, with $4 billion specifically in the Philadelphia region. We assist our neighboring communities in a variety of ways, from providing neighborhoods bordering campus with enhanced police protection, to specialized employment opportunities for North Philadelphia residents, to special partnerships with the School District of Philadelphia.

In addition, Temple provides millions of dollars in health care through our medical, dental and podiatry schools. The university also launched its Cecil B. Moore Scholars Program this fall, which creates an academic pathway for young people living in our neighboring North Philadelphia ZIP codes by providing 20-25 Philadelphia public school students annually with a full four-year scholarship.

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Charles H. F. Davis III is a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan and director of the Campus Abolition Research Lab. He also serves as principal investigator of the #PoliceFreeCampus project.

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