A surge in violent robberies on and around the University of Pennsylvania campus this fall has spread fear among students, angered parents, and stirred bad memories of a decade ago, when University City was one of Philadelphia's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Since Oct. 1, at least 10 students have been among the victims in 16 robberies reported to Penn police. Some were at gunpoint.
Many of the crimes have followed a frighteningly similar pattern. The victims typically have been approached at night or in the early evening, usually by two or more assailants in their teens or early 20s. Frequently, they've been punched in the face or knocked to the ground before their money was demanded. One female undergraduate was pistol-whipped.
The robbers have struck most often on the western edge of the Penn police force's jurisdiction, which stretches west from 30th Street to 43d and south from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue. Several of the most recent attacks, though, have been closer to Penn's core.
Campus and Philadelphia police have made at least seven arrests, in one case catching two assailants in the act. All but one have been West Philadelphia residents, and most have been minors, including a 14-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy - although a pair of 20-year-old brothers also was apprehended. The attacks tend to subside after an arrest, only to start up again within days.
University officials say the spate of robberies reflects higher crime rates citywide. But that hasn't placated students. They are variously calling for better lighting and more police, the sacking of Penn's security chief, and the repeal of the school's ban on carrying concealed weapons.
"This situation is out of control," read one of hundreds of angry postings by students and parents on the Web site of the campus newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. "If the administration can't keep students reasonably safe on campus, then they need to close up shop."
Asked on Tuesday about the spike in robberies, Penn president Amy Gutmann said, "We're bringing it under control," and called campus safety her "absolutely highest priority."
She also cautioned against comparing the current trouble to that in the mid-1990s, when violent crime in West Philadelphia created a major image problem for Penn.
"Don't say crime is like it used to be here," Gutmann said, "because it isn't."
Nonetheless, she has been worried enough to urge students, in a campus-wide e-mail last month, to "exercise good judgment and take appropriate precautions." And at a Nov. 10 meeting, she asked Mayor Street and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson to do more to keep the Penn community safe.
Campus security chief Maureen Rush said her department noticed the first signs of an "uptick" in crime in April. The incidents were minor - bike thefts, smashed car windshields. But her "gut," she said, told her something more serious could be coming; Rush sensed the "familiar feel" of the mid-1990s.
That angst-ridden era began with the 1994 murder of Penn graduate student Al-Moez Alimohamed in a $5 robbery gone wrong. It was followed 26 months later by the stabbing death of university researcher Vladimir Sled. They were only the most notorious of the violent crimes that plagued Penn for several years.
Since the late 1990s, though, crime on the campus and in the immediate vicinity has plummeted 50 percent, campus police said.
Some credit for that goes to the university's continuing efforts to redevelop West Philadelphia. But the improving numbers are due more to Penn's massive investment in security.
Penn's police force now includes 101 sworn officers, supplemented by 347 security personnel. On and off campus are nearly 300 surveillance cameras, continually monitored from a sophisticated control room. With an operating and capital budget of $24 million, the department is one of the largest, best-funded university security operations in the nation.