As University of Chicago police expand reach, residents raise concerns over lack of transparency

University of Chicago police officers on the job on 53rd Street. -Spencer Bibbs
University of Chicago police officers on the job on 53rd Street.

-Spencer Bibbs

Staff Writer

A group of Hyde Parkers want to discuss the University of Chicago Police Department’s role in the neighborhood and the Mid-South Side.

UCPD patrols from 37th Street on the north to 64th Street on the south and Cottage Grove Avenue to Lake Michigan. It has full police powers, including the authority to search, ticket and arrest. It is a privately funded police force and is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Some Hyde Parkers want UCPD to be subject to greater transparency and be more open regarding the people it stops, including their racial makeup.

A forum will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 29, Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., to tackle the issue.

“What we have with the UCPD is a private entity taking on a public function that is seeing to the public safety of a large swath of the South Side, and most people living within the boundaries of UCPD welcome their presence,” said Jamie Kalven, of the Invisible Institute. “But there is a fundamental question what kind of accountability, what kind of transparency is required and desirable to maintain the confidence of the community and guarantee that people have redress.”

The Invisible Institute, which Kalven leads, will host the forum where people are encouraged to share their good or bad experiences with UCPD.

Kalven was approached by members of the community, who have concerns that the private organization may not have a level of public oversight that should inherently come with police authority.

The Private College Campus Police Act extends police powers to private college security forces in Illinois. Those powers are authorized on campus and the right of way on public properties between those properties.

That sort of authority makes sense in a more traditional college town with a clear division between town and gown, where campus police deal with campus crimes. Its value and implications in a dense urban area where those lines are blurred are less clear.

“That’s what part of this forum is designed to talk about,” said Hyde Parker Rod Sawyer. “The fact that these aren’t Andy and Barney. These are real police officers and they have the ability to act as any other police force would act but they don’t really have any accountability.”

Because the University of Chicago owns property across major swaths of the Mid-South Side, UCPD can act as police over much more property than campus.

Sawyer is not affiliated with the university, though is wife is an employee. He does not think the UCPD should have the authority to stop him on the street.

“My contention is UCPD shouldn’t have this authority in the first place. You should not be able to stop me as a community person. That’s not necessary,” Sawyer said. “We’re dealing with real police with no oversight and anything you ask them they say ‘we don’t have to tell you.’ If you perform a governmental function, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say ‘We’re private. We can do what we want.’ But you can detain and arrest and start someone in a criminal process.”

Ava Benezra, a fourth year at the university and founding member of the Coalition for Equitable Policing (CEP), says the UCPD uses racial profiling.

“We know anecdotally that there is a lot of racial profiling,” Benezra said. “But we don’t have any statistics to back that up. That’s the kind of thing you can get with any public police force and without that information, racial profiling can continue with impunity.”

The coalition wants UCPD to make available all of the same information about the people it stops, when and where, as the Chicago Police Department or any other public organization is required to make public.

Benezra said no one associated with CEP wants Chicago to be any less safe, simply that it wants UCPD to be held to the same standard as any other police force.

In the spring, UCPD sought, and received, professional certification through the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The voluntary certification will need to be renewed in three years and UCPD needs to maintain a standard of policing that meets 482 policing standards.

In April, UCPD held a public forum as part of the accreditation process. More than 30 students spoke to present their concerns that UCPD has issues with racial profiling and a lack of transparency that should prevent it from being accredited.