NEWS

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April 3, 2005

Victims say officers fell short

The University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) announced Monday that it had apprehended two prime suspects in the pattern of armed robberies that has left approximately a dozen students and faculty without wallets and laptops—and raised serious concerns about the level of safety in Hyde Park.

The suspects were caught shortly after assaulting a victim on 56th Street, near Dorchester Avenue, according to Bob Richards, law enforcement coordinator for the South East Chicago Commission. "We feel very strongly that they were responsible for quite a few of these robberies," Richards said. He would not confirm the number of robberies in the pattern, since victims are still identifying attackers and the investigation is incomplete.

Richards said that another offender, who had targeted women, was also caught on March 28. "This other individual, we feel strongly that he has been involved in a series of strong-armed robberies," Richards said.

Richards said there have been no reports of robberies in Hyde Park since the three have been caught.

In its wake, the crime wave has left community members unsettled—especially with the March 6 homicide at Kimbark Plaza in fresh memory.

Extensive conversations with two of the victims, who are both male graduate students who live near Kimbark Plaza, revealed deep concerns about the UCPD. While it is not surprising that victims of crime have strong feelings about how to secure the community, their first-hand experiences have translated, largely, to pointed critiques of the University's police force. The victims blamed the UCPD for not doing enough to inform students about the crime pattern; not communicating with graduate student housing; and, most centrally, for failing to deal with them alertly, sensibly, and intelligently.

Joel Lande, a graduate student in the Germanic Studies Department, was robbed at gunpoint on February 20. Walking into his building at 54th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, Lande was approached by two men. "They threw me against the wall, took out a gun, took my computer, cell phone, and money," he said.

Lande said the attackers made clear he would not be hurt if he cooperated.

After the robbery, a UCPD officer arrived immediately. She was "thoroughly incompetent," he said. "She was nit-picky, confrontational. I knew all the while she was trying to make sure I didn't fabricate a story, but she just went too far giving me a hard time."

Lande, who has since filed a formal complaint against the officer, said that he told her that the attackers greeted him as they approached. The officer asked Lande to repeat exactly what the attackers had said, and Lande said he didn't remember. "She really pushed me," he said. "It seemed captious, it seemed totally off the wall."

Lande also said that the officer did not have paper or official forms to take notes. "She used a scrap of paper she found on the floor of the entranceway."

A few minutes after Lande described the two attackers—black men aged 35 to 40, who were presumably carrying the computer bag they had just stolen—the UCPD apprehended a young black man, aged 18 to 20. The person they had arrested "in no way matched the personal description I gave the police," he said. "They just picked up someone who was black and had a backpack."

"The whole thing seemed inadequately conducted," he added.

Lande said the Chicago Police Department, which arrived at the scene later, was more professional.

He also made clear that his complaint is against the specific officer, not the UCPD as a whole. "I don't think the UCPD is doing a bad job—there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than we see," he said. "But I felt like police officers should have better interpersonal skills, especially when dealing with crime victims."

Executive Director of the UCPD Rudy Nimocks did not return multiple calls and an e-mail to comment for this article.

Defending the UCPD was Richards, whose organization, the SECC, tracks crime in Hyde Park. He said the UCPD has a strong record of catching repeat offenders. "They use techniques and investigative procedures that you don't know about, and they're very successful," Richards said.

Noting that he could not give specific details, Richards said that the UCPD had been tracking the two main suspects before catching them. "The students may have specific issues, but the UCPD has been very successful over the years at cleaning up crime patterns," Richards said.

Another student, granted anonymity to discuss his experience with the UCPD, was robbed at gunpoint on March 12. The UCPD arrived quickly, and the student said, during their survey of the scene, noted in their records that that the offenders had dropped part of the gun, and took it as evidence. That evidence is now missing, according to the student.

When initially speaking with the police, the student was upset and didn't remember all the attackers' details. But when he later remembered more, he found that the UCPD was not interested in hearing them. He went to the UCPD the next day to give them more details—including the fact that his credit card had been used at two local gas stations. "The police told me, ‘There's no need [to come to us]. The city police will contact you.'" He called the UCPD again on Monday, and got no response. He emphasized the importance of a speedy transfer of information since the gas stations may have had closed circuit televisions that kept tapes only for two or three days.

He said he spent more than an hour on Tuesday calling the UCPD and the Chicago Police Department, being put on hold and transferred before he was able to relay details. "There should be a set of rules—what happens, who gets notified—after a crime," he said. "It should be clear to the students who to talk to. Now, everything is vague. And on top of it, you're in a difficult emotional situation. It's all very vague."

On Tuesday, the building's janitor did not know that there had been an armed robbery in the building—until the student told him. "When a janitor doesn't know that there's an armed robbery in his building, there's a problem," he said. "There's miscommunication between various organizations in the University who are dealing with the issues."

"If I had known there was a problem—if the alert was up—maybe I would have acted differently. It was noon, people were walking around outside," he said. "I had no idea that if I see two guys who fit this description, I should be more careful."

According to Henry Webber, vice president for Community and Government Affairs, there is a well developed system for promulgating crime-related information consisting of a committee of faculty, staff, and students that meets several times a year to decide when to distribute warnings and patterns.

"Under what conditions do you send out security alerts? How do you balance what the community needs to know with…too much?" The committee reviews these questions "consistently," and will do so again at the spring meeting, Webber said.

As for the suggestion that the student body receive crime pattern alerts, Webber said that that would be a topic of conversation at the spring meeting, to be held on May 20. "The current system is a system we've worked on for years. It works reasonably well, and we want to keep looking at it and see if there's any way to improve it."

According to Sheila Yarbrough, the University has an extensive safety alert system, with notices posted on 18 bulletin boards, faxes across campus, and an e-mail listhost with hundreds of recipients. The graduate student housing office, which receives the alerts via fax, is supposed to post them.

The victim said there was no alert in his building, and that his neighbors did not know of the robbery until he told them in passing.

Webber said that if there was a breakdown in communicating with residents, "it was an isolated failure," he said. "I don't believe this is a systemic problem."

Duel Richardson, who publishes the Safety Awareness Alerts, added that an alert had been published on Monday, February 21, after a weekend that saw four armed robberies. There was also an alert published March 29, the day after the suspects were apprehended.

Lande attended a meeting with the UCPD on March 15, and petitioned "calmly but vehemently" for a University-wide e-mail to be sent detailing the crime pattern. Lande said the offenders consistently demanded computers and cell phones, while attacking only males in the late afternoon or early night.

"When I tried to convey to the police that maybe this is an emergency worthy of sending an e-mail to the entire student body, they responded by saying that they would have to review the security policies at the beginning of the next school year—or whenever they meet," he said. "I question the integrity of a police department that makes decisions based on the fear of clogging inboxes."

Lande said he doesn't necessarily think the University's lack of publicity about the crime wave amounts to an attempt to keep students from thinking the neighborhood is unsafe. "The University has a reputation they want to uphold, and there's a lot going on in the police department that we don't know about," he said. "But in this instance, the police department seems to have hesitated, and I can't tell if they're trying to downplay information."

The other student said that students do not receive enough information about crimes in the neighborhood. "There isn't enough awareness," he said. "Nobody talks about it."

Richardson said that the idea of sending alerts to all students will definitely be on the agenda of the next meeting. "We've tried for years to get students to subscribe to the system," he said. "But yet we find that we consistently hear that students don't know about crime patterns in the neighborhood."