The University of Chicago Police Department, one of the largest private security forces in America, is under fire for alleged racial profiling. And its officers are even more protected from accountability than normal cops.
Last month, three aldermen, a former police chief, community members, and students gathered at the Experimental Station in Hyde Park to push for changes to the University of Chicago Police Department, which has come under fire lately for its culture of secrecy and alleged racial profiling of neighborhood residents. During the meeting, Jamel Triggs, who works at Blackstone Bicycle Works, told the crowd, "I've been held up, handcuffed and put on the curb for no reason, just because I was there."
Also present were members of the Campaign for Equitable Policing (CEP), which was founded in 2012 and helped organize a series of events last month as part of "UChicago Week Against Police Oppression."
"I was hearing a lot of stuff about that from people of color on campus who felt pressure to dress like a student and were very anxious about having their ID on them at all times," says Ava Benezra, founder of CEP and a fourth-year student at the college.
The campaign emerged from the students' realization that they had no recourse to obtain information about stops made by the UCPD. Since it is a private police force, the department is not required to release those statistics, nor is it subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The UCPD, one of the largest private security forces in America, has the legal status of a private police force and the powers of a public one.
Yet the majority of UofC students are not all that concerned with the daily goings-on of their private army. Tovia Siegel, a fourth-year student at the university and a member of CEP, told me, "In terms of the student response on campus, there have been times when we've been outside canvassing on the quad and they've said 'UCPD helps me' and 'I love UCPD.'" She explained that the UCPD has a good relationship with the students, almost never arresting them for underage drinking or smoking and often escorting inebriated kids back to their dorms.
The UCPD keeps an extensive log of daily incident reports, and are very upfront about their crime-fighting abilities. By the Department's own estimate, there was a 31 percent drop in violent crime in the Hyde Park-South Kenwood neighborhoods in the last five years. But the UCPD is far less clear about the number of stops its officers make and whether or not they are racially profiling. According to Census data, the population of Hyde Park, at 46 percent white and 30 percent black, is highly integrated for a Chicago neighborhood—though it should be noted that black people made up 37 percent of the population a decade ago.
This past summer, CEP representatives met members of the university administration for several hours to voice their concerns. During that meeting, according to Benezra, campus officials told her they didn't want to incite the anger of the broader Hyde Park community by releasing stop-and-frisk statistics. "In response to our asks, [the administration would say,] 'We understand why you think this is important but the truth of it is if we released these statistics the community would be outraged because these numbers show we treat students differently from the community,'" she told me.
Benezra and another member of CEP also claim that during the same meeting a campus administrator compared releasing UCPD stop-and-frisk statistics to releasing students' grades.
In a statement to VICE, the UCPD said that it "does not deploy tactics that support racial profiling... As a department, we often and openly discuss our policing strategies to ensure our officers are not engaging deliberately or inadvertently in bias-based policing."
The university has an Independent Review Committee—consisting of community members, students, faculty, and staff—that releases annual reports on their reviews of the UCPD, but it has no power to make changes. According to the IRC's most recent report, there have been 130 complaint cases against the UCPD since 2005. Of the 99 cases that weren't handled internally and went through the IRC, 77 of the complainants were black. The IRC has been adept at acknowledging a variety of kinds of complaints, including those that the UCPD dismissed as "unfounded" without conducting an investigation.
The UCPD jurisdiction extends from 37th Street on the north to 64th Street on the south and Cottage Grove Avenue to Lake Michigan—around six square miles, all told. Within these bounds, 90 full-time and ten part-time officers (the university says "approximately 100") patrol the 65,000 residents, 50,000 of whom are not students. The UCPD has primary jurisdiction over the area and full policing powers, meaning they can search, ticket, arrest, and detain. (Of course, for more serious offenses, the Chicago Police Department remains the primary investigative agency in the jurisdiction.)
Roderick Sawyer, who's been a Hyde Park resident for the past 23 years, has been involved in local governance for a while, serving on the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce and the 53rd Street TIF Council. But he says he didn't pay much attention to the UCPD until his daughter enrolled at the University of Chicago's Collegiate Scholars program a few years ago. In a meeting between heads of University of Chicago departments and parents that took place in the summer of 2013, Sawyer mentioned that he had noticed an increase in university police making traffic stops. He asked a UCPD sergeant who was present at the meeting whether their authority extended beyond that, to which she replied that it did not.
"In 2014, that's when people began to approach me regarding... African American males being stopped on the streets, being cuffed," Sawyer told me. He claims to have started keeping an eye on the issue after witnessing undercover UCPD officers talking to some students of Kenwood Academy High School, which falls within their jurisdiction, back in May.
Since Illinois adopted the Private College Campus Police Act in 1992, the UCPD has enjoyed the powers of a municipal or county sheriff. Importantly, the purpose of the ordinance is not only to protect the "students, employees, visitors and their property," but also the "interests of the college or university, in the county where the college or university is located." The history is murky, but the UCPD's jurisdiction has expanded on at least two occasions as a result of this loosely worded ordinance. The university was able to expand the jurisdiction of its security force in 2005, in order for it to reach the first of its neighborhood charter schools. Jeremy Manier, a university spokesman, told me over email that there was also a smaller expansion in 2011, which was designed to further protect the areas around the charter schools and was part of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University and the City of Chicago.
"There's probably a number of other things that happened," Sawyer says. "The city's dealing with a budget shortfall and there's always an issue, especially on the South Side, about enough police because the city is running into budgetary problems."
Sawyer also pointed out that the expansion of private police powers is not unique to the University of Chicago: "Private colleges and universities, their departments, across the state, have the same power. It's just that the University of Chicago has been much more aggressive and creative in using that law."
Nor are issues of transparency in campus police forces unique to Illinois. Harvard, for example, has refused to release its private police force's crime logs, and the city of Cambridge is now requesting around $3,500 to fulfill a FOIA request to disclose email correspondences between university police and the Cambridge Police Department.
Over the course of the past decade, as Sawyer's experience suggests, it seems that there's been a shift in UCPD tactics as well, including increased reliance on traffic and foot stops.
This may have started in 2007, when a Senegalese graduate student at the University of Chicago named Amadou Cisse was shot to death just off campus. In response to this tragedy, the university wasted little time in consulting the Bratton Group (them helmed by William Bratton, the former LAPD commissioner who reassumed his old gig as the head of the NYPD in January) to help it devise a report on campus security.
Bratton is one of the chief proponents of Broken Windows policing, in which minor infractions are punished with greater severity and frequency to discourage violent crime. Hallmarks of this policing style include more officers, more stops, and criminalization of nonviolent activities such as loitering, vandalism, smoking pot, and dancing "recklessly." This style of policing has been criticized for leaning on racial profiling.
The Bratton Group's findings were never released to the public, but it did inform a 2008 report issued by the university's Campus Safety and Security Committee. Recommendations included increased visibility of security officers on campus, email alerts about criminal activity in Hyde Park, the expansion of student transportation services, expanded use of security cameras, and safety education for students.
These tactics seem to have decreased rates of violent crime, but also increased student and community tension. During a march held by students and community members to protest the closing of the university hospital's trauma center, it was discovered that a UCPD detective was participating and posing as a protester. Two UCPD employees were placed on administrative leave as a result of the incident.
Today, when students first arrive on campus, they are bombarded with the message that the university has one of the largest private security forces in the world outside of the Vatican. This is obviously supposed to make the first-years feel protected, but some students have reported being harassed by the UCPD. In 2010, Mauriece Dawson, a black fourth-year student, was arrested by University police in the Regenstein Library for "unruly behavior" after he refused to show the officers his ID. Several witnesses told the Chicago Maroon, the university's student paper, that Dawson and his friends "were not unusually loud for the popular study area."
But the complaint heard most often is that the UCPD is racially profiling young black and brown men in Hyde Park. Aerik Francis, who is black and Latino and graduated from the college in June, told me, "There are a lot of local residents who were between maybe ten and 18, and they would tell me that they grew up knowing that UChicago was a place that we couldn't go. Oftentimes police officers would come up to them and ask them what they were doing and throw them against the wall."
Francis told me that on his very first day at college, during orientation, his dad, who is black, was denied access to a campus building when he failed to produce ID for a UCPD officer while trying to find a bathroom.
"After that point, I've never been stopped, but walking around Hyde Park, I've had cop cars slow and watch me," Francis said. "I was always really persistent about making sure I presented myself as a student, wearing UChicago gear, my hoodie and stuff." Students of color frequently told Francis stories of being stopped by UCPD and asked for their ID. "It's a lot of harassment and profiling," says Francis. For him, Hyde Park "kind of has the vibe of a police state."
Hannah K. Gold, a graduate of the University of Chicago, is a Brooklyn-based journalist writing about criminal justice, higher ed, and pop culture. She's written for the Nation, Al Jazeera America, The Youngist, and Rolling Stone. Follow her on Twitter.