Looking for lessons at Penn

The Ivy League school in Philadelphia beefed up its security after two killings in the mid-1990s. Hopkins officials will view its video surveillance system.

February 14, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Al-Moez Alimohamed's life was cut short before he could complete his graduate studies in mathematics; Vladimir Sled's before he could finish his research in biochemistry.

Both were victims of brutal street murders not far from the University of Pennsylvania, an urban campus of 23,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, and an equal number of employees just west of Center City.

Their killings, within 26 months of each other in the mid-1990s, caused the same kind of anguish that has been so evident on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University after the killings of senior Linda Trinh last month and junior Christopher Elser in the spring.

The killings of the Penn grad student and research fellow also inspired action, serving as a catalyst for the university not only to beef up on- and off-campus security with additional officers and the latest technology, but also to invest tens of millions of dollars in improving nearby neighborhoods.

As a result, Penn has received national acclaim for its safety efforts and urban initiatives. Johns Hopkins officials are scheduled to visit this month to get a firsthand look at the university's extensive video surveillance system.

Penn has seen reports of crime on and around campus drop by nearly 50 percent since 1996. That was the year Sled was killed in what was the last homicide within the university's patrol area, which extends several blocks beyond what is considered the edge of campus.

"It's night and day," said Maureen S. Rush, the university's vice president for public safety, of the difference in crime between then and now.

Despite the drastic decrease, campus crime remains a concern among Penn administrators -- and a periodic issue among students on a campus crisscrossed by city streets.

Last year, robberies on and around campus increased by 14 percent, to 65, though they, too, have been halved in the past eight years. The problem continued, with a half-dozen robberies of businesses, students and employees so far this year. In the midst of the robberies, a female student was sexually assaulted in an alley early one morning.

Reports of the crimes in The Daily Pennsylvanian generated several postings on the forums on the student newspaper's Web site, most of them calling for more security.

"It is apparent that Penn needs to saturate the area with more uniformed security to prevent these frequent armed robberies. Are they waiting until someone is hurt?" one reader wrote.

"GUNS -- let students carry them. Then, nobody will mess with students," another wrote.

Those postings prompted a rejoinder this month from Alex Koppelman, a senior from Baltimore and a weekly columnist for the paper.

In his column, Koppelman argued that students tend to overreact to reports of crime, pointing out that crime at Penn and the surrounding area is far less than the national average. He praised the university for keeping students safe but lamented the fact that the emphasis on security seemed to come at the expense of encouraging students to explore the "vibrant" and racially diverse neighborhood beyond the school's western boundary of 40th Street.

"I don't think I hear enough, `Go out to West Philly. It's a fun neighborhood. It's an interesting neighborhood,'" he said in an interview. "You're not necessarily going to be a victim of crime if you go past 40th Street."

Several students said they were more cautious than fearful.

"I always take the shuttle bus if I have to go home late," said Clara Kim, a graduate student in biostatistics who lives in West Philadelphia."

Blair Kaminsky, a senior history and economics major, takes advantage of services such as escorts if she's out late at night.

"I don't stay out past midnight by myself; I don't walk down the alleys," she said. "As long as I take those precautions, I feel fine."

"You have to remember you're in an urban environment," added Jeff Shuster, a senior finance and real estate major.

The feeling was much different in the fall of 1996. Unlike Hopkins, which had not been experiencing a particular upsurge in reported crimes when the two recent slayings occurred, Penn at the time was in the midst of a two-month violent crime wave around campus. It culminated in the Halloween night killing of Sled. He was fatally stabbed after he came to the aid of his fiancee, whose purse was being snatched on a street not far from campus.

"It seemed like a day didn't go by when there wasn't a robbery, an assault or worse," said Andrew Zitcer, who arrived at Penn as a freshman in the fall of 1996, stayed to earn a master's degree in planning and now manages the university's cultural assets. "Most people were going nuts. They felt a wall should be built around campus and there should be police everywhere."

Rush, the vice president for public safety, recalls "tough sessions" with parents.

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