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Campus, Philly cops unite to combat crime

A relationship between the two departments has led to decreased crime.

Carl Bittenbender remembers when the Liacouras Center was nothing more than a hole in the ground. The block where 1940 Residence Hall would eventually rise housed an old church. The armory, which sat at Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue, had just burned down, leaving room for White Hall.

When students showed up on move-in day, Temple Police distributed “safe corridor” pamphlets, detailing what streets to stay away from and what areas to avoid.

“We would give you a pamphlet when you came here, of where to walk. Safe corridors…where we put additional patrols. And [we] told people, ‘Don’t walk on this street,’” said Bittenbender, executive director of Campus Safety Services, laughing as he recalled Temple’s earlier days. “The whole place is a safe corridor now.”

A lot has changed since Bittenbender and Deputy Director of CSS Charlie Leone started working together at Temple more than 17 years ago. They remember a much different campus, environment and policing strategy.

Bittenbender has seen Temple move from a daytime commuter campus to an inherent part of the city. As the university made the shift, so did its police force.

“Our relationship was always good with [the Philadelphia Police Department],” Bittenbender said. “But as it became more of a residential community, the collaboration became much more important than it ever had been.”

Dating back to 2000, the two departments began joint efforts to tackle crime near Main Campus, which sits in Philadelphia Police’s 22nd District. It began with joint efforts to link the forces’ systems in order to coordinate policing on and around campus.

“Prior to [2000], you could have a Temple police officer walking on Broad Street, a foot beat, and you could have a Philly police officer walking. And neither would know what the other was doing,” Bittenbender said. “However, now we operate our radio…we have a line here that goes to 1235 Market [St.], and bounces to the [Philadelphia Police Headquarters], which has all the police 911 calls that come in to the city.”

This open communication has evolved into a dynamic working relationship that extends to all levels of the two forces.

“Carl and I talk three to four times a week, if not every day,” said Detective Christine Coulter, a central division inspector for the Philadelphia Police Department, who added that the forces meet every two weeks to discuss crime and policing strategies. “[It’s] at every level. My cops talk to Temple cops, supervisors meet with supervisors, from the top all the way down. There’s no gap.”

Bittenbender said the open lines of communication can be traced all the way back to the police academy, where many future Temple and Philadelphia police officers train in the same class.

“You meet other police officers, you establish relationships. This way, when [PPD officers] come to the 22nd [District] and our folks come here, you’re familiar with people,” he said.

Among the many formal strategies coordinated between the two forces, Coulter recently assigned two Philadelphia detectives specifically to the Temple area in order to further streamline the investigative processes. Prior to the change, campus crimes could be handled by any number of central detectives. Three different detectives could be assigned to three different crimes in the same area.

“We changed that to ensure that there would be better information flow between our investigators and [Temple’s],” Coulter said. “Now, it’s the same detectives for every crime.”

This working relationship has yielded results. CSS has noted a steady decline in crime rates since 2011, and year-to-date comparisons haven’t bucked the trend. 2013 crime rates already indicate a nearly 19 percent decrease in crime on and around Main Campus.

With the university’s changing landscape, Bittenbender said it’s a trend worth noting.

“If you look at the growth, the amount of square footage, the amount of students that live here, the amount of visitors to the campus; count in stats for thefts of phones at the Liacouras Center, drunk students at raves,” he said. “Take that all combined, and yet, we are doing better than 17, 18 years ago.”

As students continue to take up residence in the surrounding neighborhood – including the fledgling east end of campus – Bittenbender and Coulter both said the forces’ collaboration will continue to adjust to maintain a safe environment for students.

“It’s not just one thing. It’s a constant process every single day,” Bittenbender said. “If there’s an incident, there’s no waiting until 8 a.m. the next morning for a response. I can pick up the phone and call the deputy commissioner…All of this work and the collaboration with [Philadelphia Police] has yielded huge results. We’re certainly not perfect, but it has paid tremendous dividends.”

Ali Watkins can be reached at allison.watkins@temple.edu or on Twitter @AliMarieWatkins. 

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