January 28, 2013

Explanation needed from campus cops

The UCPD’s treatment of protestors raises concerns about student safety and community trust.

On Sunday, activists staged a protest at the University of Chicago Medical Center’s new Center for Care and Discovery as part of a campaign to convince the University to open a Level I adult trauma center. Protestors from Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), and Students for Health Equity (SHE) declared their peaceful intentions, but were asked by UCPD officers to vacate within a few minutes of their arrival. According to the Chicago Tribune, “before the majority of the group had a chance to leave on their own, however, University of Chicago police took out their batons and started shoving protesters toward the door, several people tripping and falling onto the floor in the middle of the crowd.” The police reportedly struck the camera of a protester filming the eviction. They also forcefully subdued graduate student Toussaint Losier, who was the group’s designated police liaison, meant to facilitate safe police-protester communication. Losier was requesting the presence of a Dean-on-Call, who arrived after the arrests. According to a protestor quoted in today’s Maroon, “Once they got him [Losier] on the ground, they just kept hitting him.” Losier, who is black, was jailed along with three others. This incident raises serious questions about the UCPD’s response, especially in light of its historic reputation for unjustifiably targeting people of color, and demands a full and swift explanation.

The University has made a stronger relationship with the local community an important focus over the last several years. It has been, and should be, commended for efforts to direct financial resources and research projects toward improving infrastructure, education, and quality of life on the South Side. But such efforts will do little to improve trust and understanding if the University appears to feel justified in using unnecessary force against peacefully protesting community members.

The events on Sunday, and those like them, also erode our trust in the UCPD as a protector of student safety. The protest and arrests were a front-page story on the Tribune’s website for much of Sunday evening. A change.org petition demanding an official explanation had more than a thousand signatures at press time. The magnitude of this response can be partially attributed to community concern about the UCPD’s excessively forceful tactics. It appears no one was seriously injured, but based on the aggression that was displayed Sunday, we cannot be confident that the UCPD will not repeat this behavior, and possibly on a larger scale.

Most of all, what is disturbing about this incident is how thoroughly it runs counter to the ideals and goals of this institution. Our university is supposed to be a place for open, free, and peaceful inquiry. The administration, as per the Kalven Report, even ostensibly refuses to take institutional stances on political issues because it is afraid of subduing expression. But can anything stifle debate more effectively than a policeman’s baton dangling above all who would even think to respond to University policies with protest? And how can we continue to attract the best students and teachers, and foster the kind of community that facilitates intellectual exchange and growth, if people living in this neighborhood cannot trust the very individuals tasked with keeping them safe?

By and large, the UCPD demonstrates a high degree of courtesy, professionalism, and respect on a daily basis. However, these qualities cannot shield its reputation indefinitely. The amount of force that officers used this weekend appears to have been excessive, and that is unacceptable. Thus, the UCPD must thoroughly account for what occurred, and why. And if the UCPD’s actions can be deemed officially unwarranted, whether through open forums or through further investigation, steps must be taken to ensure that similar incidents never happen again. Given that Losier was a co-chair of the ad hoc committee appointed to investigate UCPD tactics after the controversial 2010 arrest of Mauriece Dawson (A.B. ’10) in the Regenstein Library, his arrest and alleged beating aren’t encouraging signs when it comes to investing trust in campus security. It’s simply unclear why a peaceful protest in a not-yet operational hospital warranted any semblance of a violent response, even if the protestors’ presence was not authorized. An explanation is absolutely required, and one that not only acknowledges that an error has occurred, but  also explains why such events recur. Outcry among students and community members with regard to UCPD tactics will continue to resurface, as long as the department remains unable to fully justify and account for the actions of its officers.

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