UCPD behavior is no mistake

To the Editor:

I have followed with interest recent conversations in the Herald and in online forums about the University of Chicago Police Department. I also attended the Oct. 29 forum at the Experimental Station, where I counted nearly 200 people in attendance. In my opinion, the main result of the forum was to make it clear that the UCPD does indeed regularly follow, stop, detain and handcuff members of our community, and that many but not all of these targeted community members are Black. This must be the starting point for any future discussion; the simple fact that the UCPD regularly acts in a way that most of us would call intimidation or harassment.

Nobody claimed that all UCPD officers behave badly, nor that the UCPD does more harm than good. Indeed, most speakers had praise for much of what UCPD accomplishes. I hope that we are now beyond the arguments that since some individuals personally have only had positive interactions with the UCPD there can’t be anything wrong. Something is wrong.

There is another key point that was less emphasized: the UCPD’s actions are a matter of university policy. There are a very few true decision-makers at the university, and none of them shows up to these community meetings. Rather, they send representatives from the Office of Community Engagement and from the South East Chicago Commission, representatives who have no power. If the people who do have power at the university wanted, they could stop all UCPD police officers from handcuffing teenagers as of tomorrow, or they could put an immediate end to all UCPD traffic stops. The UCPD acts the way it does because the university decision-makers want it to act that way. The faculty and students don’t want it to act that way, and some of them are vocal about it. Maybe the university representatives at these meetings don’t want it either, but they wouldn’t keep their jobs long if they said so in public.

Why does the university pursue this policy of policing which seems so abhorrent to so many of us in the community? I see similarities with the university’s development agenda. Let me be clear from the outset that I am much more outraged by the policing policies than by the development, and that I do not equate the loss of quality of life from a misguided real estate agenda with the dehumanization of members of our community by overly-aggressive policing. Nevertheless, I believe that the common root cause is that the decision-makers at the university have fundamental goals that I, and I believe most residents of our neighborhood, do not share. The university says it wants to compete with its peer institutions for top faculty and students, and they are not talking about the intellectual environment on campus. Their narrative sidesteps the word “gentrification,” but that is the goal: they are striving for a Hyde Park that is more attractive to well-to-do (generally white) people (that’s the plain English translation of “compete with its peer institutions”). In their narrative, an oversized development at the McMobil site is about “street life” and “retail,” and police actions on 53rd Street are about “safety,” because after all, who wouldn’t want more street life and retail and safety? Well, I don’t, if the price to be paid is out-of-scale development or police harassment of minorities. I chose to live in Hyde Park in part because I cherish the economic diversity; I haven’t been waiting for a more gentrified Hyde Park to drive away the bad elements. And while I might have a fruitful discussion with someone who would be willing to put up with a 165-foot-tall building across from Nichols Park if they believed it will support some shops they might like, I have no sympathy for someone who is willing to have the police hassle young Black males because they would prefer not to have them hanging out on 53rd Street.

And where do our elected officials enter this picture? The alderman must sign off on any zoning change, and Ald. Will Burns (4th) was only too eager to allow the university to rezone the McMobil site to more than triple the previously permitted height regardless of community input. Our state legislators are responsible for the law that gives the UCPD its police powers. If the university claims that the law exempts UCPD from obligations and oversight that bind public police forces, then they should act quickly to change the law. Both city and state officials can put private and public pressure on the university to act responsibly above and beyond the minimal legal requirements. When UCPD traffic stops came up at a TIF meeting earlier this year I heard Burns say that he intended to hold the university accountable and make sure he was satisfied that they were not engaged in racial profiling. He should follow through on this commitment and the other elected officials should join him.

The police actions that have outraged so many of us are a matter of university policy, and the university should change that policy. Our elected officials should do all they can to ensure this happens, both by changing laws that need to be changed and by direct engagement with the university. And we residents of the neighborhood need to continue to educate ourselves and hold all of them accountable.

Michael Scott