Ringed by some of North Philadelphia’s most violent neighborhoods, Temple University is no stranger to armed robberies, muggings, home invasions, and even shootings affecting members of its campus community.
It was just 15 months ago, the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2021, that the city’s largest university was horrified when Samuel Collington, 21, a senior political science major, was fatally shot near campus during an attempted carjacking. The 17-year-old alleged shooter turned himself in to police days later, and is currently awaiting trial.
This year, on the night of February 18, violence again struck the community when — for the first time in its nearly 140-year history — Temple University lost a campus police officer to gunfire in the line of duty. Officer Christopher Fitzgerald, 31, was repeatedly shot a block from a Philadelphia Police Department station while reportedly trying to stop a teen robbery suspect from suburban Buckingham Township.
Police said surveillance video shows Fitzgerald giving chase on foot and catching up to the suspect, ordering him to the ground before the two begin to tussle. The suspect shot Fitzgerald multiple times after he fell to the ground. The suspect unsuccessfully tried to steal the dying officer’s gun before running a block away, police added, where he threatened to kill a pedestrian before stealing their car at gunpoint.
A swift law enforcement response included assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service, and the following morning, city police arrested the suspect and charged him with murder and related counts.
Crime and safety have long been prominent topics of conversation in the Temple community. But the killings of Fitzgerald and Collington have refueled the dialogue over how to keep students and employees alive and out of danger.
Since Collington’s death, the school has expanded its shuttle bus service for students and introduced a safety app that connects students to campus police. But many in the community are still concerned by what they see as a glaring deficiency: a dearth of officers in the understaffed campus police force. Temple has roughly 33,600 students enrolled, with 72 police officers on patrol.
“The profession of a police officer has been villainized for the last couple of years, and as a result it’s really difficult to hire police officers right now,” said Temple Student Government president Gianni Quattrocchi. “At the end of the day, Temple is an academic institution. It’s not a prosecutorial district, it’s not a district attorney’s office. When it comes to public safety, Temple cannot do it alone. You can’t reduce crime at Temple without reducing crime in Philadelphia.”
Three days after Fitzgerald’s slaying, as his family members visited the candle-and-flower-covered shrine on the spot where he died, gunfire erupted nearby. Two blocks away, two teens had been shot while walking home from school: a 17-year-old boy was hit multiple times in the legs, and a 13-year-old-girl was shot in her right forearm. Both survived, and police are looking for the gunman who fired from a moving car.
“Is it scary being here? Yeah. North Philly is a dangerous place,” said Joseph Gober, 20, a biochemistry sophomore from Scranton. He said he has known Temple students who have been victims of crime and who have left the school, but he is staying. “I have not thought about leaving. I enjoy Temple so much — the athletics and academics. I think it’s only right to, instead of leaving, stay and make the place better.”
‘Students are angry and devastated’
Hundreds from the campus and surrounding community gathered around Temple’s bell tower for Fitzgerald’s vigil, during which his wife and father spoke of his passion for being an officer and a family man.
“He was a hard worker. He took overtime a lot, and sometimes it made me sad because he wasn’t home,” Marissa Fitzgerald said, fighting tears. “But I know that he went in to do overtime because he knew that they were short-staffed and he just wanted to make sure that everybody was safe.”
In her husband’s absence, she told the students, “I will carry on the goal of making sure that Philadelphia becomes a safer city for all of y’all to be able to come to school and not have to worry about getting shot.”
His brother, Joel Fitzgerald, a former Philadelphia police officer and currently the chief of police and emergency management for Denver’s Regional Transportation District, said: “For each of you students, for each of you faculty members that benefited from guns being taken off the streets, he did that for you. He did that at the peril of his life.”
Jason Wingard, Temple’s president since July 2021, previously pledged to beef up the campus police force. At the vigil, instead of addressing that promise, he spoke of his hope that the officer’s death would be “a catalyst for an outpouring of compassion, of love and of grace.”
Students said the killing has highlighted just how dangerous living and studying in Temple Town can be.
Quattrocchi said the slayings of Fitzgerald and Collington have cast a pall over the campus. “‘Devastation’ would be an appropriate word” to describe the mood, he said. Also apropos: “Shocked, sadness, anger.”
There is a feeling of disappointment, he said, with the state of violence on campus and in the city. “West Philly, South Philly, it’s everywhere, and it impacts students wherever they go,” he said. “I think students are angry and devastated that this is a culmination of that.”
Sophomore Anna Rosenberg, 20, said she was in shock upon learning of Fitzgerald’s killing, but said she has no plans to leave Temple.
“It’s hard. I will be completely honest, I have thought to myself, ‘Is risking my safety worth it for this education?’” said the Lancaster native, who is majoring in Greek and Roman Classics. “And at this point in time I say, yes, it is. I do love it here. I am very happy with my department, the professors that I have, and the friends I have made. And I also know for a fact that this violence is not just unique to North Philadelphia.”
“We see violence everywhere in this country,” she added, noting the recent mass shooting that left three students dead and five wounded at Michigan State University, and the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students in an off-campus apartment.
‘A gun-crazy state’
Even in a city that has lost more than 500 lives annually — mostly to gun violence — for the last two years, Fitzgerald’s death reverberated across the sprawling North Philadelphia campus of 35,000 students and down Broad Street to the Center City offices of Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and District Attorney Larry Krasner, who held a joint news conference with Temple officials after the suspect was arrested.
Philadelphia and Temple, like many other places across the country, are struggling to find enough police officers to fill vacancies, officials said, while legislation to restrict the flow of guns onto the streets of Philadelphia and the rest of the state is lacking.
“This is a gun-crazy state … The point is, there’s too many of them and they’re too easy to get,” Kenney said. “They don’t have this problem in Canada, they don’t have this problem in Europe, they don’t have this problem in any place where you can’t get a gun — and they have less of a problem in New Jersey and New York.”
New Jersey and New York were among the five states with the lowest death rate from firearms in 2020, with 443 and 1,052 deaths respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pennsylvania’s death rate was 19th, with 1,752 deaths.
Days before Fitzgerald was killed, representatives of the Temple University Police Association used the union’s Facebook page to harshly criticize Temple Wingard’s administration for failing to fulfill a pledge it made after Collington’s death to double the number of campus police officers within weeks.
“When will @JasonWingard & @TempleUniv start to prioritize public safety on our campus? @JasonWingard stop avoiding the issue and sit down with us to discuss REAL solutions!” wrote Alec Shaffer, the union president.
Since Wingard’s pledge to boost security staff, officer ranks actually decreased. There are now 72 campus police officers on patrol, down from 79 in December 2021, Temple’s director of communications, Steve Orbanek, said. There are additional officers working on campus in other capacities — 97 in total, including the 72 on patrol — and eight new officers will join Temple’s force when they graduate from the police academy in March.
“We are aggressively recruiting to bring people in, but we will not lower our standards and bring in the wrong people. We see nationwide what happens when the standards are lowered,” said Temple’s director of public safety, Jennifer Griffin, who added that Fitzgerald was working alone the night he was killed due in part to the workforce shortage.
Philadelphia attorney Tom Kline, who has been hired by Collington’s parents to investigate campus security, pointed to the campus’s broader challenges with safety. “The tragedy that happened to Sam is now compounded and inflicted on yet another family,” Kline said. “The campus has a chronic, endemic problem.”
Parents on board
The killing of Sam Collington galvanized parents to organize and lobby the university and city officials to not only enhance security for students, but also to improve the quality of life for the surrounding community, four parents told the Trace.
Fitzgerald’s slaying underscores how much more needs to be done, they said. Some of them even pitched in to pay a private security company to start doing patrols last year.
“It’s devastating for a number of reasons: He was young, and a new police officer, and a father. And it’s scary, and you worry for your children and everybody starts going, ‘What street? How close to where their children live,’” said Hillary Fletcher, whose daughter is a senior art history major.
Fitzgerald died a block from the city Police Department’s station for the 22nd District, one of four North Philly police districts the city identified as having had the most shootings in 2022. It received additional officers this January in an attempt to quell the violence.
“When we’re trying to do things, we’re not just worried about our own children, Temple students,” said Andrea Doyle, whose daughter is a junior journalism major. “It’s the staff, it’s permanent residents and the surrounding businesses. Our children are not more important.”
Doyle, Fletcher, and Fadia Halma are among about 100 parents on the Temple University Parents Safety Advisory Committee, which formed after Collington’s death with the goal of making the campus and surrounding community safer.
The committee members said that Temple has adopted some of their ideas, like creating a grant program to incentivize landlords to install cameras and lights at off-campus student housing, devising a landlord rating system to help identify suitable housing, and increasing the number of shuttle buses routes. As of February, campus spokesperson Orbanek said, 1,489 cameras were installed and working on campus.
The parents are now encouraging the Temple administration to work with the city and community organizations to start a clean-and-green program to clear trash from streets and vacant lots, install more street lights, and build parks for children.
“There’s so much garbage, and the equity is not there. If you go into the Rittenhouse area, the streets are clean,” asked Halma, who has two daughters at Temple. “Why is that not happening in North Philly?”