Last Wednesday, at Student Government’s Leadership Conversation with the UCPD, students had an uncommon opportunity to engage with UCPD administrators face-to-face. One hundred students walked into the room with one message, stated clearly on the stickers they wore: “I stand against racial profiling.” On behalf of the Coalition for Equitable Policing (CEP), I thank Marlon Lynch and the rest of the UCPD leadership for participating and expressing a willingness to continue to meet with the student body for future discussion—especially considering that many issues raised in the Leadership Conversation demand further discussion.
Despite this willingness, however, UCPD administrators failed to put forward a coherent account of how the UCPD can reconcile the great responsibility of policing the public with the use of their private status to shield themselves from public inquiry. Chief Lynch stressed the full police powers of UCPD officers as well as the extensive scope of their jurisdiction, which spans from 37th Street to 64th Street and covers 65,000 people, the largest jurisdiction of any private police force nationwide. However, when it comes to whether contact cards (brief summaries of police stops that reveal their racial makeup, among other data) should be released by the UCPD upon request, Chief Lynch leaned on the University’s status as a private institution to justify withholding this vital information. Public police forces in Illinois release this information pursuant to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. But as part of a private institution, the UCPD prefers to keep such information secret. Since the UCPD has full police powers within its jurisdiction, we find it unacceptable that the University refuses to release this kind of information.
UCPD administrators also made it clear that they do not treat students and community members the same way. The UCPD does not deem the same behaviors “criminal” across these two demographics. One student posed a question about why students—especially white students—are unlikely to face repercussions for underage drinking or illegal drug use, when we know that black students and people who are not University-affiliated often face repercussions for these very same things. Chief Lynch’s response was to ask whether students preferred that the UCPD spend more resources policing drug and alcohol use among students. We would not. Not only would we prefer to see the UCPD not direct its resources toward minor offenses like substance possession as a matter of principle, but we hold that their current unequal enforcement of these policies is a situation that must end. The UCPD should not have policing priorities that it is unable or unwilling to enforce equally. Chief Lynch attempted to explain away the UCPD’s double standards by pointing to the fact that internal procedures are available as an alternative means to discipline students, but not community members. While we appreciate Chief Lynch’s regard for students, this does not get past the fact that the UCPD does not currently provide equal treatment before the law.
The University cannot have it both ways. On one hand, the UCPD touts its unprecedented reach and policing powers as being equal to those of public law enforcement entities; on the other, the UCPD claims that it does not have to release its policies, procedures, or contact cards because it is part of a private institution. The UCPD is the primary police force for tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are not University-affiliated. At the hands of the UCPD, individuals face the same consequences that they would when confronted with the CPD: endless court dates, blighted job prospects, hefty fines, and jail time. The people policed by the UCPD, students and community alike, deserve a police force that is publicly transparent and accountable. CEP stands strong in our message. On Wednesday last week, the UCPD saw the number of students who agree with CEP’s priorities. The UCPD can continue to shroud itself in secrecy, undisclosed anti-bias policies, and intimidating complaint procedures. However, let us be clear: as long as the UCPD continues to shield itself from this sort of accountability, it is playing an active role in reinforcing exclusionary boundaries and disparate treatment before the law on Chicago’s South Side.
Ben Chametzky is a second-year in the College and a member of the Coalition for Equitable Policing.