May 2, 2008

Switching gears for safety

[img id="80561" align="alignleft"] With warm weather comes more crime. It’s a simple enough statement, but in a city neighborhood, it can sometimes mean coming home to a broken window and no laptop. Protected by the Chicago Police Department, the U of C Police Department (UCPD) and, for a few blocks at least, the United States Secret Service, most U of C students are happy with the state of safety on campus. But as with any situation, it can always be improved. The University can start by putting more cops on bicycles.

When it comes to visibility and mobility, bicycle police certainly have advantages over their counterparts on four wheels. An officer sitting in his car cannot reasonably be asked to notice every student who walks to class along 57th Street, but a bicycle police officer, riding more slowly and covering more ground, could. In a car, someone’s primary responsibility is to watch the road, where very few students walk and few crimes are committed. On a bike, one must be aware of all manner of things. The simplest way to explain it is that you can watch squirrels while riding a bike or walking, but not while driving. On a squirrel-intensive campus like this one, the UCPD should share the perspective of an average student.

Mobility is also important, and although in emergencies cars can get around campus quickly, a bicycle police officer would be more effective in chasing someone if he ran to a place a car would not fit, such as the small sidewalks between apartment

buildings and academic buildings.

The sizable fleet of UCPD patrol cars no doubt makes students feel safe. However, with such limited personal interaction with the officers, it’s difficult to associate the dozens of squad cars with the officers inside them. How many students can identify individual officers by face, let alone name? Allowing for interaction between students and the officers could enable more personal relationships between the two groups, which would be helpful in building trust and contacts. Knowing someone by name facilitates all future interactions—think of someone who serves you food or grades your papers, for example. Improved accessibility would be also be a good feature in the UCPD’s umbrella service.

In addition to safety and efficiency, bicycle programs have a number of other significant benefits, such as zero carbon emissions, cheaper operation costs than cars, and more exercise for the police officers. It could also serve as tacit encouragement for more bicycle use in Hyde Park, which in the long run could help alleviate some parking and CTA crowding issues that the neighborhood has. Alderman Hairston was correct, at least, in pointing out that Hyde Park suffers from parking problems; choosing bicycles over cars is a way to alleviate the congestion.

There are obvious limits to the implementation of bicycle police officers around campus, and any policy enacted must take these into account. For instance, asking the police to ride their bikes in the dead of winter would be cruel, and considering that cold weather is a deterrent in itself, it would be altogether unnecessary. Likewise, it would be both costly and inefficient to purchase an excessive amount of new bikes in order to create an entirely new patrol strategy; by making changes in moderation, the UCPD can fit the bike patrols within the current system. Last, it likely wouldn’t make much sense for bike patrols in less pedestrian-heavy zones of Kenwood or Woodlawn, which are still easily navigated by car.

The neighborhood is going through many changes. The prospect of famous architect Jeanne Gang’s Solstice On the Park (a 26-story luxury high-rise building so revolutionary it was featured in Wired), improving retail options, and a general rise in affluence as city living continues to grow in attractiveness will transform the area over the next decade. How the police are perceived inside the community is almost certainly going to change as well. Overall, students, faculty, and staff would feel safer if UCPD officers on patrol reflected the pedestrian nature of those whom they serve. Increasing safety and trust with law enforcement on campus and beyond would go a long way toward helping Hyde Park improve as a community.

Ronan McNulty is a third-year in the College majoring in geography.