A Year in Review: Drexel University's Public Safety Oversight Committee

Exterior look at the Drexel University Police Department.

Drexel University is one of just a few institutions of higher education in the country with a fully engaged public safety oversight committee composed of students, faculty, professional staff and community members. And during that group's first full year of operation, which concluded this term, Drexel University's Drexel Public Safety Oversight Committee (DPSOC) created a framework and participated in new practices to provide a community layer of accountability, transparency and improved understanding of Drexel's Department of Public Safety.

Following an initial year in which the Committee’s operating framework was established and diverse members were added through a public nomination process, the group has met monthly to review key reports, played an active role in interviews for hiring Drexel University Police Department officers, received training on police policies and protocols, and much more — all through three transitions in the leadership of the Department of Public Safety.

Now that the group's first full operating year has been completed and next steps have been planned out for the 2023–2024 academic year, over half of the DPSOC spoke with DrexelNow to reflect on what has happened, share their proudest moments and provide information on what the future has in store.

A First Year, Years in the Making

In 2020, Drexel University contracted with 21CP Solutions to assess the Drexel Department of Public Safety with specific focus on the University Police Department. Commissioning the report was deeply influenced by the death of George Floyd and the time of national racial reckoning and protests against law enforcement and racist policing. One of the report recommendations included Drexel adopting a “Reimagining Safety” process with some sort of community facilitation group outside of the department.

That recommendation, as well as campus discussions, conversations with Drexel leaders and members of similar groups at other colleges and universities, led to the creation of the DPSOC by November of 2021. The charge for the Committee is broad and fully outlined on their website. The first step included the solicitation for members of the Drexel community and its neighboring community to join the group through a public nomination process.

"You cannot understate both how important and how novel this Committee has been from the start," said Thomas R. Kline School of Law Dean Dan Filler, JD, who is a founding co-chair of DPSOC. "To me, it reflects one more way in which we're seeing both the imperatives around antiracism and the imperatives around civic engagement play themselves out within the internal workings of the University."

Building a Team

Filler joined the Committee in part because of his background as a former public defender and his scholarly research prior to the committee related to campus policing. Backgrounds and research brought in the other co-chairs, too. Senior Vice Provost of Community Health and Chief Wellness Officer and Marla Gold, MD, who researched oversight committees at other institutions of higher education and helped establish the committee guidelines, also serves as one of the co-chairs. For College of Medicine Associate Professor and Senior Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leon McCrea II, MD, it was his background in medicine that led to interest in serving as a third co-chair. Other pushes to join included the fact that the College of Medicine is currently still located on Drexel's Queen Lane and Center City Campuses but will join the University City Campus this year; his time as an undergraduate student at Brown University, when police officers did not carry guns on campus, also informed his decision, he said.  

Indeed, personal and professional experiences were all listed as reasons that inspired more than half of the committee members to participate. The desire to be more involved at Drexel, contribute to making the Department of Public Safety more accountable to the community, increase transparency, and have their voices be heard were also important.

"Having served previously as a resident assistant in Bentley Hall and as a residing chair on the Student Conduct Board, I have seen public safety from a variety of angles. As an international student and a student of color from South Africa, I wanted to bring a worldly perspective into how international students perceive public safety and the officials on campus," said Yaseen Ahmid, who is graduating from Drexel this year with degrees in supply chain management and logistics, finance, and business analytics, and a minor in legal studies.

The inclusion of community members was essential to the Committee. Jackie Williams, a founder of the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association Community Development Corporation (CDC), was asked to join the Committee as someone not employed by or attending school at Drexel.

"The Lancaster Ave 21st Century Business Association CDC has been involved in other programming at Drexel, and we hold events in the area and interact with the police to share our events," said Williams. "We know that safety is important, and we wanted to be part of the evolving roles and responsibilities that law enforcement is becoming. The professional expertise that I bring to the committee is that of being a community activist and member of a CDC."

By May 2022, the Committee had found its team of students, faculty, professional staff and neighborhood members. The group also has a few at-large members and non-voting members from Drexel's administration, including the Vice President of Public Safety, Mel Singleton Jr.

Starting Off Strong

To serve as a liaison between Drexel Public Safety and the University community, the Committee devised a way to provide oversight of Drexel Public Safety and its police services and work to ensure that members of the Drexel and West Philadelphia communities experience equitable treatment in interactions with the department.

To start, the DPSOC co-chairs, working with input from other universities, the 21CP Report, published literature on campus policing and a full review of Drexel’s Anti-Racism Task Force's Final Report, created responsibilities to hold themselves and Drexel Public Safety accountable and devised their own operating procedures.

The three co-chairs met weekly over the past year, and the Committee has met monthly. During those monthly meetings, the Vice President of Public Safety (who is also the chief of police) and other representatives from Drexel departments briefed members on key updates. This included all use of force incidents as well as any complaints and subsequent investigations by members of the public against Public Safety officers. (Drexel community members can also directly email the DPSOC with concerns at dps-oversight@drexel.edu.) During this academic year, no complaints or inquiries came directly to the Committee from the Drexel community, and no reported incidents required more than robust, internal Committee discussion.

In addition to the meetings, Committee members learned about and from Drexel Public Safety in additional ways; they also had the opportunity to provide recommendations. Members learned about Drexel Public Safety policies and protocols and had the opportunity to attend drills and training sessions, including those related to active shooters, and ride-alongs with the Drexel University Police Department.

"Looking back, it has been a really unique opportunity for us given all of the things that have happened recently both regionally and nationally around violence, including violence against communities — especially communities that have been disenfranchised — and violence against officers," said McCrea, the College of Medicine associate professor and senior associate dean. "It's a great chance for us to be an active part in helping to figure out how to keep our University and University City community safe."

Additionally, members acted as a resource for the Vice President of Public Safety on various issues or concerns involving the Department and the Drexel University community. And since there were two vice presidents of Public Safety and one interim vice president during the Committee's first year, that meant there were many opportunities to do so.

When the Committee was started, the then-Vice President of Public Safety and Chief of Police was Eileen Behr, who retired in June. Bob Lis, police captain of investigations and a member of Drexel Public Safety since 2005, stepped in as the interim leader. Committee members said both were open and committed to being transparent and working with the Committee and were especially welcoming to the engagement of the committee. In November 2022, Melvin Singleton Jr. joined Drexel as a 28-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD).

A New Era of Drexel Public Safety

"Through the Committee, I was able to participate and share my input with the search firm during the hiring process for the Vice President of Public Safety and Chief of Police position currently held by Mel Singleton. As a Committee, we understood how important this hire was and the impact it would have on both the Drexel campus and the surrounding neighbourhoods. This was a great opportunity to serve as a change agent and bring my perspective as a person of color and staff member to this diverse table of voices," said Julia George-Barnes, a financial coordinator in the Dean's Office of the College of Arts and Sciences.  

From the beginning of his tenure at Drexel, Singleton said he recognized the Committee “as being a cross section of the communities we serve: students, faculty, staff and the outside community.” After more than six months into his tenure, he thinks of the Committee as “more of a partner than just oversight.” He described the Committee as a “one-stop shop” where he can share ideas, get feedback and work in partnership toward their shared goals of reimagining public safety and enacting the recommendations of 21CP Solutions. Singleton has also asked Committee members to review key DUPD policies and provide any recommendations. He has invited members of the Committee to observe trainings for officers, and said he plans to continue doing that.

Singleton invited the Committee to be a part of the hiring process for new officers. Candidates are now interviewed by three panels: an officer panel, a senior leadership panel and — new under Singleton’s leadership — a community panel, staffed by the Committee. This process “gives the community we serve a voice into who we are actually hiring,” he said, adding, “I think it has made the process better, yielding the type of officers we want to recruit. We want them to be able to speak to other officers and know the job, but also speak to and know the cultures of the communities we serve.”

Many of the Committee members who spoke to DrexelNow highlighted their involvement with this new hiring process as a highlight of their service to and for the Committee. They helped develop questions to ask that reflected community concerns, and some members participated in the interviews themselves. Afterwards, they provided feedback on candidates.

“The process was enlightening and helped me to have a better understanding of the challenges and the opportunities of the Drexel police force,” said Williams, the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association leader. “It was an all-day process, but it was exciting for me and I was proud of the decisions that we made concerning the recruits that we interviewed.”

For Ahmed, the undergraduate student, that opportunity to participate was very much appreciated:”"I am happy that Drexel is leading the pack in terms of initiatives such as the Commitee and having students participate in interview panels because students are some of the people these officers are sworn to protect and we deserve to have a voice at the table.”

Singleton also made himself available to the community outside of the Committee. In April, he accepted an invitation from George-Barnes, the College of Arts and Sciences financial coordinator, to meet with members of the Black Employees at Drexel (BEAD) colleague resource group, of which she is also a member. He discussed what goals he had for Drexel Public Safety and what services are already available.

“People were able to present their concerns, and Mel had already started working on a lot of the stuff that people were concerned about, so it was great to have that information made available for them and to have the opportunity to have that open dialogue,” said George-Barnes, who was inspired to host the event because of her new knowledge of Drexel Public Safety as a Committee member and the realization that others do not have that type of access.

Next Steps for a New Year

With the end of the Committe's first year comes the retirement of one of the co-chairs: Gold, the chief wellness officer and senior vice provost of community health.

“The DPSOC is one of only a few active, engaged university safety oversight committees in the nation,” said Gold. “This added layer of accountability has expanded over time to an important partnership where community input results in tangible change and members of the campus community and surrounding neighborhoods can provide input directly to the DPSOC.”

The Committee is also considering opening up additional spots for membership, which would share an increasing workload and allow for more diverse input. Members of the Drexel community can use the nomination process located on the DPSOC website to apply for membership.

In addition to changes in membership, the Committee hopes to continue and expand its relationship with Singleton and Drexel Public Safety. Members also want to increase the Committee's communication with the Drexel community and hold some sort of town hall, which was planned for this year but was halted due to Drexel Public Safety's transitions in leadership.

“This is not an end game; this is going to be a continuous process,” said Filler, the Kline School of Law dean. “But the very fact that we have a committee that's alive and active and well is, I think, really positive and speaks to Drexel's approach to being a citizen of an urban community.”

Additional reporting was done by Irene Tsikitas Lin, executive director of communications in Finance and Administrative Services.