Scope of police questioned in U. of C. lectures

Recent discussions about police in today’s society on the University of Chicago campus included a visit on Oct. 23 by FBI?Director James Comey. Marc Monaghan
Recent discussions about police in today’s society on the University of Chicago campus included a visit on Oct. 23 by FBI?Director James Comey.

Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

Policing isn’t working. This was the tacit agreement underlying a series of criminal justice-themed lectures at the University of Chicago (U. of C.) Law School, last week.

On Thursday, Nov 5., Lori Lightfoot, president of the Chicago Police Board, a quasi-judicial body that decides the guilt or innocence of police officers accused of serious misconduct, visited U. of C. Law to give a presentation titled “Policing in Our Own Backyard: Past, Present, and Future.” The following day, the law school hosted a legal forum symposium titled “Policing the Police,” which included top legal scholars from across the country, most notably Tracey L. Meares, a Yale Law School professor, who, in Dec. 2014, was appointed by President Obama to his Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

These events came only about a week after FBI director James Comey visited the law school to discuss the state of law enforcement across the country. Comey acknowledged the rising, or, perhaps, increasingly visible tide of America’s distrust of police.

“[Police] are only as good as the American people’s confidence in us,” Comey said, while speaking at U. of C. Law.

The expansive scope of law enforcement in today’s society was a theme ubiquitous throughout last week’s lectures.

While speaking on Thursday, Lightfoot said that police are too often relied on as a solution to all of a community’s ills.

“We ask too much of the police,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot noted that Chicago neighborhoods plagued with violence are those that have a dearth of basic community services, such as child care and after-school programs. The scope of the Chicago Police Department reaches to unattainable lengths, Lightfoot said, when we expect the police to address these fundamental issues.

“Police are ill-equipped to address these communities’ basic needs,” Lightfoot asserted.

Lightfoot also rebuked a claim furthered by Comey when he spoke at the law school, which stated that recent spikes in violent crime are due to a “Ferguson (or Youtube) Effect.” This alleged phenomenon, which has also been argued for by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, is the process by which police officers become reluctant to do their job because of increased public scrutiny.

“The notion that police officers would be reluctant to do their jobs because cameras are ever-present is nonsense,” Lightfoot said. “There is zero data to support that idea.” Lightfoot continued, “If police are doing their jobs the right way, what do they have to fear?”

For Lightfoot, the problematic notion of the “Ferguson Effect” is more reason to address the expanding scope of the police force.

“We must have a conversation about what police can and cannot do,” Lightfoot said. “They need to have a fair and attainable job description.”

The extent of police authority surged into the national dialogue recently when a video surfaced online of a police officer body-slamming a teenage girl in a South Carolina high school classroom.

In Chicago, police officers have been a staple in many public schools for over a decade. Though often taken for granted, this practice strikes a cord with scholars arguing for the reduction of police authority.

Kenwood Academy principal Greg Jones said that police officers function in a supportive rather than punitive role at the local high school, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.

“Their role is primarily for support,” Jones said last week. “They’re no different than a teacher or parent.”

Mariame Kaba, founder of the Chicago social justice organization “Project NIA,” offered a retort to Jones’ acceptance of police officers’ roles within the school.

“If [police] are acting as hall monitors in the building,” Kaba said, “They don’t need to have police officers in that building. They could have parents or volunteers. Good relationships between administrators, teachers and peers create safety, not cops.”

In a Friday U. of C. Law panel discussion titled “Reforming Police Institutions,” Yale Law School professor Tom Tyler said that, contrary to the accepted national narrative, police presence in certain ways actually increases crime rates. Tyler called out aggressive and investigatory forms of policing, such as “Broken Window Policing,” as practices that do more harm than good. These detrimental practices, Tyler argued, are again the result of a police force that has expanded its scope to include, among its obligations, the prevention of crime. Though, in reality, effective crime prevention, Tyler argued, stems from the allocation of resources to underserved communities. The professor furthered that it is only a relatively recent notion that police should be responsible for the entirety of the process of curbing crime trends.

“We need to focus police on issues that build community trust,” Tyler said, “not on investigatory stops, but in working with the community and building ties.”

Friday’s keynote speaker at U. of C. Law, Tracey Meares, said an important notion introduced by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing is that law enforcement shift from a ‘warrior’ mindset to a ‘guardian’ mindset. This again underscores the argument of many of Friday’s speakers: that a conceptual shift in how we view the role of police officers must be a precursor to legal reform.

Meares warned, “Change will be painful for policing organizations. There will be resistance—there is a sense of righteousness. Change will also be difficult for affected communities, particularly communities of color—there is a sense of righteousness.”