March 11, 2014

On the record

UCPD needs to provide a stronger explanation for not releasing records.

On Friday, March 7, the Coalition for Equitable Policing (CEP) delivered a petition to the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD). The petition—which received more than 750 signatures—demands that the UCPD become more transparent by publicly releasing current police practices, simplifying the mechanism for filing a complaint, and establishing a process for the public to obtain police records identical to that which is set out in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). At a Leadership Conversation in the fall, UCPD chief Marlon Lynch addressed similar calls for transparency by saying that the police force is a branch of the University, and that “the University’s policy is to not release records because it is not required to do so.” We are not convinced by that argument. Because the UCPD’s actions have a public impact outside of the scope of the University, we urge the University and the UCPD to either offer a more compelling defense of the policy, or to release the records.

The UCPD, though a private police force, serves and affects a large swath of the South Side that spans from 37th to 65th Street and Lake Shore Drive to Cottage Grove. At present, the UCPD does not have to meet the same disclosure standards as a public, taxpayer-funded police force. But the community it serves extends beyond campus and includes South Side residents who are not affiliated with the University. Despite the fact that the UCPD shares jurisdiction in these areas with the Chicago Police Department (CPD), these residents deserve the same level of accountability from all police in their neighborhood. There is no clear reason for a resident of this area not to be able to view a full report of a crime if the UCPD happens to respond to a call instead of the CPD.

The success of a similar campaign at Yale University can serve as an example of a private police force which functions under the same accountability rules as a public force. In 2008, the state of Connecticut began to require the Yale University Police Department to hold the same records release policies as public police departments. In the case of Yale, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission found that the private police officers had the same police powers as the municipal officers for the city of New Haven, and thus essentially perform a government function that extends beyond the boundaries of campus.

Just as the Yale Police Department has powers equivalent to its municipal counterpart, the UCPD has powers in a non-University jurisdiction like those of the CPD. The UCPD recently achieved full-service status and now has the ability to write up police reports and detain and process arrested individuals without the involvement of the CPD. As its power and status increase, so does the UCPD’s obligation to operate under the same standards of transparency as that of a public force.

The UCPD is already at the forefront of private policing, and now has an opportunity to be at the forefront of accountability. A government commission mandated Yale’s police force, but the UCPD now has the opportunity to voluntarily engage with the public in this discussion and thus show that it is a police force of the community, not just of the University. Justifying its actions because they meet the bare minimum is not good enough—the UCPD would do well to use the CEP’s petition as a starting point for cultivating mutual trust and, by extension, a stronger community.

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