Triangle Talks with Melvin Singleton | The Triangle

Triangle Talks with Melvin Singleton

Photo courtesy of Drexel University

Melvin “Mel” Singleton, Drexel’s new chief of police and vice president of public safety, officially began his position on November 14, 2022. A 28-year police veteran who most recently served as second-in-command to Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, he was hired by Drexel following a nationwide search for a leader to help deal with the uptick in crime Drexel’s campus has seen in recent months. The Triangle checked in with Chief Singleton to ask about his time on the job and his plans for the department. This interview was edited for clarity.

Christian DeBrady: So I’d like to start off by getting an idea of your motivation, both for coming to Drexel and for following a career as an officer for almost 30 years now.

MS: Let me start with why I decided to become a cop. I had an experience where I was on a SEPTA bus. I was coming from work, I was about 16 years old and I watched a woman who reminded me of my mother get robbed at 52nd and Market Street. It was nighttime, and I actually leaned forward because I saw her literally about to get on the bus. It was a strong arm, yanked at the pocketbook until she fell and he got it from her. And I thought to myself, “Chase him? Don’t chase him?” until he was too far to catch. I never got off the bus, I actually froze. And I felt like a coward. I felt like… I wanted to do something about it. It impacted me in that I wanted to do something to stop people from just harming anyone when they feel like it, and that stayed with me for a long time. I have to tell you that over the course of my life as I got older, I lost sight of that. I didn’t become a police officer until I was 25 years old, and I saw that when I was 16, so, it took me some years until I was able to take that step into becoming a police officer as I was going through college and other priorities. So, my motivation to be a police officer is having the ability to positively impact the community by keeping folks safe. I think I’m a born protector, and so for me that’s what it’s about. Also, when I got older and I got on the job it became about having my voice in the room. Why I went up the ranks is because I realized that as an officer, my voice was not in the decision-making room, and it was necessary because folks in the community needed to have representation in those rooms. I tell young people all the time, we need diversity in our departments, because if we are represented then any decision can come out of that. And even with voices in the room mistakes are made, maybe with good intentions but mistakes are made. So I’m motivated to protect and also to represent the voice of the community.

As for Drexel, to be honest with you, I was not sure I would apply. I started reading about Drexel; someone brought to my attention that Drexel was looking for a new Chief and Vice President of Public Safety. So I started reading about their equity-inclusive culture, I started reading about the fact that they promote civic engagement within the communities and actually do work in that area. And I’m thinking to myself, “I’m a community guy.” When I was in the 19th District I actually did a lot of community work. I got into the community and got to know them. Got to know my cops, partnered with them and problem-solved, cleaned up lots, cleaned up blocks. The whole of Lansdowne Avenue in my tenure in the 19th District used to be a war zone full of drug dealing and shootings. By the time I left there after five years, I got a little emotional because kids were riding up and down the block with their bikes and playing, and none of that had still existed there when I started. I saw the power of working with the community. Community work is important for cops, I think when we stray away from that partnership with the community is when we’re going in the wrong direction. My push is going in that direction, and when I also read the 21CP Solutions Report, all of it pointed to needing to get back to the community. So I decided to apply because that’s something that I’ve done and would like to continue doing.

CD: So in light of the involvement that you want with the community, how do you plan to make sure that your work is transparent both to members of the surrounding community and Drexel students?

MS: It starts with understanding that in every facet of police work, the community voice should be included. If I’m working on a new policy, first we’ll look at it internally, but once we have it internally I’m going to bring it to the community. The oversight committee that was formed is a good cross-section of the community, but it’s not robust enough for me. I asked them, “Yeah you’re an oversight committee to the Drexel University Police Department, but can you help me in expanding when we need to bring in more community?” And I mean community from students and staff as well. Can we expand that if I want to go over policies that directly impact the community? Pursuit policies, use-of-force policies, I have done it. When I was the first deputy, we went over our use-of-force policies with the community and we would get feedback, stuff that I would have never thought of, even as a career police officer. Some of our wording and thought processes were changed because community members were pointing things out to us that we could tweak to make them less offensive or scary. So, bringing them in is key for policy, and training. 

We want to involve the community in training, and the oversight committee is going to be my gateway, because I think that’s a good group that can feed the community and their wants into it. And I’m going to be trying to meet folks in the community. Like the community groups, student body groups, everybody. I’m going to work through them until I get to larger groups and I can maybe start having partnerships on my own. So it’s important having community voices embedded in training, policy writing, deployment strategies. 

One of the things we have done in policing, when I mentioned the concept of making mistakes, was that if there was a crime pattern we would come up with a deployment strategy and send a bunch of cops down there. We didn’t tell the community that they’re coming, we did not ask the community what they wanted or needed, none of that. Now I have the opportunity to bring some community in and say, “Listen we see a pattern here, I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think about it?” And so that is also transparency, and community buy-in because they are helping me form the plan, they know the plan is coming, all that stuff helps you with transparency and it force multiplies us because if the community is buying into your plan, it can help with extra eyes and ears. I’m not trying to get anyone in the community exposed to the point where they’re in danger, but eyes and ears is something that always multiplies police departments. So from that standpoint, just to be clear–in policy, deployment, training, all the aspects of police work–bring the community’s voice in. It is a complicated process, but it’s one that has to be done and it’s one that I am willing to do.

CD: Thank you for such a comprehensive overview. Another question that goes into that, which I am sure you had to deal with during your time in the Philadelphia Police Department, is how have you led your organization to deal with criticism of their actions from the public?

MS: So I like to be transparent and truthful. As a police chief, you hope that when you are building relationships with the public, they trust what you’re telling them. So if an officer makes a mistake or does something outside of our policy, I am going to say it. We have policy and procedures for a reason, we train officers in that and we expect them to function within that training. If they step outside of that, I am going to say, “Yeah we’re going to conduct an investigation,” because we have to have some sort of due process and be up front with the public about it. There’s no reason to try to hide it, delay it; tell the truth. I will make sure that officers who are guilty of wrongdoing are dealt with in an appropriate manner. So that is something that I will do and I have done my whole career. Anyone who knows me knows that I have no problem with making sure that officers are properly disciplined for their actions, especially if they are stepping outside of what they are supposed to do.

CD: I would like to shift gears a little here; you have been in your role at Drexel for about two months now. What are your initial thoughts on Drexel’s Public Safety and police department, and what are some ways you think you could see it improve?

MS: First, there are a lot of good people here. I have been introducing myself; I went to every roll call and met every one of my cops and dispatchers, the surrounding vice presidents and their staff, introducing myself to everyone. I have been meeting students as best as I can, and there are just a lot of good people here, that is what I am learning about Drexel University. A lot of good, kind-hearted, well-intentioned people.

The police department has some challenges. One, if you want to embed yourself into the community, you need time to do it. Right now, our calls for service have increased by 200 percent, crimes like robberies have gone up from like two in 2020 to twenty-seven in 2022, which is a significant increase. If you think about it, if you want to problem-solve with the community, you need to have enough officers to be visible and to deal with the crime that’s plaguing us, but I don’t want a specialized task force to engage the community. I want any one of my officers that I choose to go greet, meet, talk to and get to know the community. That way, if community members voice a problem, they can sit down and form a problem-solving partnership with the community, whatever community that is. It could be students or it could be the outside community, as long as they have time to work with them and fix that. But to do that, we’re going to have to grow to some level with this university because there is a lot of building and population growth going on. I do not mean we have to grow dramatically, just enough that we can properly police and properly engage with the community, and we need to have enough cops to do it. I do not want to just say it; we actually need the resources and people to make it happen. 

CD: In that vein, what long-term goals do you have for the department, and what challenges do you anticipate in meeting those?

MS: My long term goals are to make sure that by the time we are in year three or four, our relationship with the community is much stronger. One of the things that I am doing is getting every officer cell phones, because I’m a proponent of giving out my number since it allows you to form information-sharing loops with the community. I hope that we can create a network of the police department with all the communities in which we are all connected. I want the kind of connection where community members know who is on patrol when, and they can call officers to alert them of things happening in the community that they should be looking out for. I think in the case of the young man Everett Beauregard that was killed, the person that killed him was walking around that neighborhood for a while. Now it may not rise to the level of calling the police, but someone in that community could have called me and said, “Someone is walking around here, can you just see what’s going on?” Had a cop gone and asked questions, that could have made the young man leave the area, and we did not have that. So that connectivity protects us all. I do not know if you’ve ever lived in a community that functioned like a village, where each person is a part of it and everyone is looking out for everyone. That kind of connectivity is my long-term goal, to make sure that we’re all connected, from the university to the outside community to the police officers, faculty, and staff; we should all be connected and looking out for one another. I envision it to look like that, and I am looking for any ideas technology-wise or solution-wise; for example, I know we have a Guardian app. The solution doesn’t need to come from me, but I want to know how we get connected in such a way that we can share information, not just about crime but anything. 

CD: To build off of that idea of enhancing safety around campus, I feel like I have to ask: What should students be doing to stay safe?

MS: We do a lot of education on self-awareness, situational awareness, self-defense, but I think the most important thing is being aware of your surroundings. I know the crime on this campus is not equal to the crime outside of this campus, and so I see young people with headphones on, on the phone, looking down, but are you aware of what is around you and who is watching you? Self-awareness and where you position yourself, who you are with, is important. If you’re walking at night try to walk in groups, if you are walking by yourself just look around you. Situational and positional awareness will help anyone, it just allows you to get out in front of what’s coming. I know I have had to do it, maybe you have had to do it, but seeing it coming allows you to avoid it. 

CD: As you’re speaking to the Drexel community, I have one last question. What do you want them to know about you as a person?

MS: I am someone who feels that policing is my ministry. It is something that I believe I was put here to do. To protect people, to help people, and I care about it. I work very long hours; that’s what they don’t tell you when you take this job, and I work long hours because I care. In order to be a police officer, you have to have a good heart. We have to make sure that when we are hiring, we somehow make sure we can identify those with good hearts. That is how I feel about policing.