It Takes a Village: To Heal Hyde Park, Look to the World

Understanding the role of police outside the United States is a critical asset in determining how we can build a safer, more inclusive community close to home.

By Tejas Narayan

In the wake of the devastating murder of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng only a few weeks ago, one of the first people I told about the incident was a close friend at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As I explained UChicago’s fraught relationship with violent crime, he was quick to recognize a similar dynamic in Georgia Tech’s local safety concerns. The Georgia Tech Police Department enjoys a generally positive image as a protective force amid several relatively dangerous neighborhoods. In light of this, he believed that UChicago would benefit from a more active police presence. He isn’t alone; calls for an expansion of University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) jurisdiction and surveillance capabilities were reflected in a public letter written to the University administration by a number of prominent faculty members, as well as many attendees of a student rally in the following days. All of these people—my friend, many of the letter’s signatories, the rally’s organizers, and Zheng himself—shared a key common thread: nearly all of them arrived in the United States as international students. It’s a fact I’ve often heard used to label the push for increased UCPD activity as ill-informed and negligent of the intricacies of our community relations and the role the police play in them. But even disregarding the fact that many of the letter’s international signatories are faculty members who have resided in the U.S. since before most of us in the College were old enough to have political views at all, the implicit assumption that experiences with law enforcement in other countries don’t apply here smacks of American exceptionalism. Rather, understanding the role of police outside the U.S. is a critical asset in determining how we can build a safer, more inclusive community close to home. Though UChicago doesn’t provide statistics on this, Chinese and Indian nationals account for over half of the U.S.’s overall international student population, which makes these countries useful case studies that we can compare to our own criminal justice system.

No one is arguing that crime reduction isn’t a priority; the general point of contention around police is whether they are an effective means to achieving that end. It’s no secret that Hyde Park has a disproportionately strong police presence, so when violent crime persists despite it, it’s only natural that UCPD’s efficacy is called into question. While this is difficult to measure—especially since police expansions tend to accompany some degree of gentrification, obscuring what factors lead to reductions in crime—the correlation between police spending and crime rate sticks out like a sore thumb from the perspective of an Indian national. On average, 4.3 percent of Indian state budgets go towards police—a far cry from Chicago’s 13.3 percent. While crime rates in India are heavily underreported due to various factors—and are often less than reliable—a typical resident’s views on the sociological benefits of policing don’t come from statistics. General experience and several high-profile cases have shown the Indian public that the lack of police funding has resulted in corruption, rampant inequity, slow emergency response times, and botched investigations. In 2008, for example, the murder of a 13-year-old girl went unsolved largely because the Noida police department failed to secure the crime scene before the majority of the evidence had been destroyed. This incident was made all the more tragic by how easily it could have been avoided. Had the officers been properly trained, had the department been able to afford vehicles, had there been radio coordination between stations, the case could have been closed a decade ago. Meanwhile, in many cases of sexual assault, it’s difficult to secure evidence due to the shortage of rape kits available to police. Time and time again, the inaction of India’s police has directly resulted in criminals walking free. It’s not at all unreasonable that those among us who have lived most of their lives in such an environment might believe that a more responsive police force would make Hyde Park safer. Just as one’s experiences of overzealous police would serve as a deterrent from allowing the institution too much influence, the experiences of students and faculty who have lived under ineffective policing should inform us of the dangers of neutering law enforcement too thoroughly. 

While the United States is far from the only country whose police are burdened by public distrust, the cause of those doubts varies from one nation to the next. In China or India, calling the police is no guarantee of safety at all. Here, calling them might get someone killed. Many American citizens are hesitant to call the police out of fear that they might escalate a delicate situation, resulting in unnecessary injury or death, and the emphasis placed on arrest rates as a measure of performance encourages officers to prioritize making arrests over public well-being. Especially given the extensive media coverage of recent police violence, it’s natural to be apprehensive about bringing legally invulnerable gun wielders into scenarios involving mental health crises or teenagers. International students, on the other hand—especially those from India or China—don’t necessarily share the same visceral fear of the police as a perpetrator of wanton violence, despite any misgivings about their effectiveness or integrity. A likely reason for this is that India’s district police are typically not issued firearms, and China’s Ministry of Public Security only recently approved equipping a limited number of officers with revolvers. While the public may not trust the police to do their jobs properly, the risk of someone dying as a result of an intervention is significantly lower when lethal weapons aren’t involved. This context reframes the advocacy for UCPD among some international students in a new light: it should be possible for police to exist throughout a community without posing a threat to the residents’ safety, and as long as the UCPD hopes to protect a neighborhood that is not theirs or ours, being equipped specifically to shoot those residents will only give them the reputation of oppressors instead of guardians. Regardless of whether that’s what these students meant, such a claim has more legitimacy when it emerges from more diverse voices than our campus, the mass media, and our online echo chambers.

It's also possible that China’s community-based approach to policing has helped build public trust over the years. While police departments in the U.S. tend to operate out of large headquarters, with patrol districts around their area of jurisdiction for logistical convenience, China’s model relies more heavily on “storefront”-style locations designed around making officers accessible and approachable. American police stations lack that level of interaction with the residents they’re meant to keep safe, limiting the rapport departments can establish with the communities they operate in. China also involves “neighborhood committees” in their day-to-day police work, allowing residents to take an active hand in keeping the peace within their communities. Alongside assisting the police with patrolling and intelligence, these volunteers serve roles ranging from mediation of disputes to legal consultation. The neighborhood committee is such an important fixture in the Chinese police system that it results in an interdependent relationship between the police and the people around them. This doesn’t just encourage cooperation with the police—it builds accountability into the police’s operations through their systemic reliance on neighborhood residents. By contrast, U.S. police departments treat community policing like a set of guidelines rather than a critical aspect of the way they do their jobs. That disconnect between the police and everyone else creates a breeding ground for problems like police brutality and reduced citizen support. In order for the UCPD to win over public trust, then, it’s necessary for their policing to more directly involve the residents of Hyde Park and Woodlawn.

I know that China is undoubtedly the more relevant of the two countries I’ve explored in this column, at least when it comes to the events of last November. Two of the three UChicago students shot in the last year were of Chinese national origin, as were the rally’s organizers, and the emphasis I’ve placed on India’s relationship with law enforcement circumstances in comparison might seem unwarranted. The reason for this is the limit of my own experience—while I lived in New Delhi for six years, I’m relatively unfamiliar with the cultural context of China, and I’m wary of speaking for a community to which I don’t belong. Whatever understanding informs the opinions of Chinese students, it’s something I would have to discover with the help of someone with that firsthand knowledge. But the spirit of my argument goes beyond the recent incidents that birthed it; it’s always essential to recognize the value in knowledge and experiences that we don’t have. International students don’t deserve to have their views discounted just because their life experience doesn’t align with our own. If anything, that’s what makes them even more essential to productive discourse. Even if we don’t think someone’s conclusion about how to manage the UCPD going forward is well-founded, that’s no reason to reject their experience as a building block to come to different conclusions ourselves. At the end of the day, though, what I’ve gathered of international backgrounds and what I’ve judged from that information aren’t what matter. The crucial fact is that anyone can do the same—we are always capable of evolution, as long as we can bring ourselves to ask what people might know that we don’t.

Tejas Narayan is a second-year in the College.