Temple University cops sued over alleged racial profiling incident

The federal civil rights complaint alleges that Temple police stopped a high school student at gunpoint for doing nothing other than driving while black.

William Bess, 19, (center) with his mother and father on their porch in East Mt. Airy. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

William Bess, 19, (center) with his mother and father on their porch in East Mt. Airy. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

A black Philadelphia college student has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Temple University Police Department over an alleged May 2017 stop-and-frisk incident.

In the filing, plaintiff William Bess Jr., then a student at the nearby Carver High School of Engineering and Science, recounts being stopped by a white Temple police officer while driving his parent’s BMW home to Mt. Airy following an after-school event. Back up officers arrived on the scene. In Bess’ account, he was ordered onto the pavement at gunpoint and cuffed as his vehicle was searched near 18th and Diamond streets.

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TUPD officers would find nothing.

William Bess, who is now enrolled at Penn State Abington, was advised by his attorney not to discuss the suit with the media. But Laverne Bess, the plaintiff’s mother, believes campus police racially profiled her son because he is black.

“If he was a white kid, you would have assumed he was coming from class, from Temple. You would have thought nothing of it,” she said. “He pulled over a black kid in a BMW assuming something was wrong. That he was a drug dealer, that the car was stolen.”

She said campus police eventually released her son and apologized, but only after he allegedly informed them that three of his siblings were active Philadelphia police officers.

Bess later contacted the university to file a complaint against the officers involved in the stop. She eventually filed a three-page complaint with the campus police department and was invited to lunch and a campus tour by university officials, but never received any other response.

Frustrated, Bess turned to relatives who worked for the Philadelphia Police Department. She was surprised to learn that while Temple cops carry guns, badges, handcuffs and wield arrest powers, the privately run department –– one of the largest in the nation –– keeps its internal records and disciplinary mechanisms largely secret.

“I called Philadelphia [Police Department’s] Internal Affairs because I thought at first they would cover them. But they explained to me they have no jurisdiction over them,” Bess said. “So, they have no oversight. There’s no one who oversees Temple Police.”

Under state law, any individual who has completed training at a state-accredited police academy can be hired by a university police department and vested with many of the same powers as city cops. But civil rights attorney Paul Hetznecker said that because they are run by private institutions, university police departments face less public accountability.

“In a municipal police department, there can be hearings. Not just litigation, but city council, a democratically elected body, into the conduct of the police department they oversee. In a university setting, there is no such mechanism,” he said. “There is no democratic mechanism or democratic forum in which that kind of accountability can occur.”

The Bess suit makes reference to a recent case in which two now-imprisoned Temple police officers beat a woman to death. The university had notably declined to release any details about the officers’ disciplinary history during the ensuing the trial.

Most universities across the nation professionalized and expanded campus security operations into full-scale police departments during the 1990s. But while these institutions were primarily intended to patrol campus property, in urban college settings, like Temple University, legal patrol ranges can sprawl into surrounding rowhome blocks that are home to thousands of residents.

Similar to city police, there is some evidence that Temple cops treat residents in adjacent black neighborhoods differently than the school’s majority-white student body. Aggregate crime statistics released by the university showed that just 2.2% of alcohol and drug-related incidents that occurred on campus resulted in arrests, the rest resulted in academic disciplinary measures. On the residential blocks surrounding the campus, 50 percent of drug and alcohol incidents resulted in arrests by campus police.

Hetznecker said that the recent allegations imply that Temple’s police were straying further from university property and conducting stop-and-frisk style pat downs of passing motorists or pedestrians that exceeded the typical parameters of campus security.

“The fact that a university police department is conducting a stop four or five blocks off campus without any reasonable suspicion doesn’t surprise me but it certainly concerns me,” he said. “It should concern all of us.”

Ray Betzner, a spokesman for Temple University, declined to discuss the case, citing the ongoing nature of the litigation. Betzner also declined to confirm or deny whether campus police had been explicitly instructed to employ stop-and-frisk tactics.

Laverne Bess said her family ultimately elected to file suit because she felt it was the only avenue she had to hold the university accountable for what she viewed as overly aggressive and discriminatory policing.

“My son could have been killed. He was on the ground face down, handcuffed with guns in his face,” Bess said. “I could have had a dead 17-year-old for doing absolutely nothing wrong. For doing everything in his life correct.”

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