March 4, 2013

Fix the police

UCPD’s use of undercover officer at trauma center protest was counter to UChicago’s values.

As reported by the Maroon last Friday in an article that appears in today’s print edition, UCPD detective Janelle Marcellis posed in plainclothes as a protestor and participated in the trauma center march held on February 23. After her uncomfortable behavior and unusual questions to other protestors raised the suspicions of several members of Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Students for Health Equity (SHE)—the march’s organizers—an anonymous source photographed Marcellis texting UCPD Deputy Chief of Investigative Services Milton Owens with updates on the protest. Yesterday, a statement from Associate Vice President for Safety and Security and Chief of Police Marlon Lynch confirmed he had no knowledge of the operation, and that two employees would be placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

The detective work by Marcellis that led to her discovery makes this situation almost farcical, but its implications are no laughing matter. That employees of a university police force would find it necessary to spy on a peaceful demonstration by students and community members is objectionable in the first place; the presence of uniformed police at the event was more than sufficient. That members of the UCPD chose to do so after protest leaders had met multiple times with University administrators, informing them of the march route and even agreeing to limit bullhorn usage near the Center for Care and Discovery (CCD) to avoid disrupting its move-in day, shows a breathtaking lack of trust by some of its officers in the public they are charged with protecting.

This unnecessary surveillance compounds the concerns about campus policing raised by the arrests and alleged mistreatment of several protesters by UCPD officers during the January 27 demonstration at the CCD. By now many people on this campus, and in the surrounding community, are losing confidence that the UCPD can be relied on to act appropriately in such situations. If not addressed, the specter of an overbearing and threatening police may well chill dissent in Hyde Park.

President Zimmer and Provost Rosenbaum should be commended for quickly recognizing this incident for what it is: a severe violation of this University’s commitment to free inquiry and peaceful expression. “We view this action as totally antithetical to our values,” they wrote in a statement e-mailed to faculty, students, and staff on Sunday afternoon, “and such activity, which is deeply problematic for discourse and mutual respect on campus, cannot be tolerated.” Their decision to lift the vital investigation of this matter above the vicissitudes of University politics by appointing an external independent reviewer to conduct it is especially welcome. It’s also encouraging that President Zimmer rightly considered the incident important enough to warrant affixing his name to such a strong official statement.

It is deeply disturbing that Chief Lynch apparently had no knowledge of the force’s conduct until the Maroon published its article. The investigations into this incident, both external and internally within the UCPD, should not only focus on allocating blame, but must also look into whether reforms need to be made to the UCPD’s command structure and organizational culture. The UCPD is a long way from regaining the confidence of the public it is meant to protect; and the road toward attaining that trust must begin with a wholehearted, serious attempt to get its own house in order.

The recent problems with UCPD conduct present one of the most serious tests of this institution’s adherence to its values in recent memory. It is of the utmost importance that the facts be brought to light thoroughly and swiftly. Once they are established, it is incumbent upon all of us—students, faculty, administrators, community members, and the UCPD—to ensure that this campus engages in open discussion about this incident, that substantive changes are instituted where needed, and that our university recommit itself to the freedoms it holds most dear.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.