May 21, 2013

An incidental report

Review of UCPD conduct a starting point for policy change that should align with UChicago principles.

Yesterday afternoon, the University released the external review report of UCPD conduct during two winter protests in support of a trauma center at the UCMC. The report, ordered by the University and completed by three members of Schiff Hardin LLP, analyzes incidents on January 27 and February 23, the second of which resulted in the arrest of eighth-year history Ph.D. candidate Toussaint Losier. It concludes that “the events on both days do highlight the need for review, assessment, and clarification of University and UCPD policies and protocols related to demonstrations and protests, including the role of the Dean on Call program, and use of ‘plain clothes,’ ‘undercover,’ or ‘covert’ operations, followed by appropriate training and education of all involved parties.” Although the report rightly points to the deficiencies of the UCPD’s internal hierarchy and inarticulate policies, it will not be enough for the Department to simply be transparent about the changes it makes—it must make these policy changes with the best interests of the University’s community and philosophy in mind.

The review found the actions of UCPD Detective Janelle Marcellis “reasonable,” ostensibly laying the blame on her then-commanding officer, calling his orders—which were based on an incorrect interpretation of how the UCPD planned to use “plain clothes” officers—“unreasonable.” These conclusions were based on the reviewers’ knowledge of the UCPD’s policies on the use of “plain clothes” officers and on dealing with protests—knowledge that was gained during the course of the investigation. However, in this case, the fact remains that few violations were found, merely because there were no policies covering many situations that could arise during protests.

This raises an important question: Why did the UCPD feel comfortable acting without any official guidance at all? The logical conclusion of this haphazard approach to law enforcement is that an officer, either in action or in giving an order, will inevitably be forced to improvise. That the reviewers found Marcellis’s actions “reasonable” is very telling. Her order, which she plainly attempted to follow, was to “get intel” from the protesters while posing as one of them. The reviewers’ finding therefore does not address the larger point: The practice of espionage is in itself unreasonable in a police force employed by this university, whose promise of free expression and open discourse is allegedly absolute. The fact that the reviewers deemed Marcellis’s actions reasonable given her orders and the circumstances tells us that their assessment of accountability focused purely on matters of existing UCPD policy.

It is perfectly sensible that any external review limit itself to examining violations of existing policies—after all, that is where concrete changes can generally be made. However, moving forward with policy changes on the ends of both the UCPD and the administration, the University cannot afford to retain this focus: The guiding philosophy of the changes that will follow both the incidents and the release of this report must not be solely preoccupied with increasing institutional transparency and accountability—they must place primary emphasis on protecting the University’s core principle of free expression, as well as the best interests of students, community members, and any individual who engages in protest on our campus.

As it stands, it is unclear how the University expects to develop policies that work for all involved parties. The administration’s official response to the report says that the process will be based on “faculty-led” discussions like those held by the Committee on Dissent and Protest. But, when that Committee had an open meeting on May 13 with students, only two members of the six-member committee showed up—not a promising start for involving students in the policies that will affect them. But, to whatever degree the University decides to involve students in the production of these new policies, it is obligated to justify the ways in which those policies will work toward the explicit aim of security. For example, if policies regarding plain clothes operations are created or revised, it must also be made clear how the presence of plain clothes officers, as opposed to that of uniformed officers, is particularly useful or relevant to the campus security situations in which they are deployed.

The Schiff Hardin report should not be viewed as a sufficient resolution to the UCPD’s shortcomings. Since it evaluates possible violations of policies as they currently exist, it makes no suggestion for change in policy—and recent events have proved that such change is necessary. These changes alone, furthermore, are insufficient. In order to hold its officers sufficiently accountable and remain in touch with the University’s mission of fostering student speech and expression, the UCPD must seek to align its policies with that mission and be able to prove this alignment through transparent and logical operations.

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