June 3, 2014

Private interests, public powers

UCPD actions toward trauma center protesters highlight the perils of the University’s private policing.

On May 19, seven protesters from the Trauma Center Coalition (TCC), including members of student organization Students for Health Equity (SHE) and Woodlawn-based organization Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), attached themselves together, sat down, and disrupted construction at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) parking garage construction site. The protesters knew they were risking arrest in an act of civil disobedience. Instead of being arrested, they were forcibly removed from the construction site and released. Some have said that the protestors should consider themselves lucky. These people fundamentally misunderstand a critical point: The UCPD, by not arresting the protestors, did not act benevolently for the seven protesters—who were prepared to bear the legal consequences, and had still decided to act—but rather acted in the narrow institutional interest of the University. What occurred that day speaks to the conflicts and perils that threaten to emerge when a University has a police force with private interests and public powers.

Let us be clear about what University administrators decided that day: By deciding to not arrest the seven protestors, University administrators decided to avoid headlines and news coverage about the University arresting members of its own community. They decided not to instigate legal proceedings that would formally prolong the conflict, make demands upon their legal and public relations departments, and risk providing the protesters a continued public platform. Ultimately, they decided to minimize public scrutiny of their actions by forcibly removing the protestors rather than arresting them.

The bizarreness of this should strike us. A clean arrest would have involved carefully cutting apart the lockboxes that attached the protesters to one another and arresting them on site. A public police force with experience with civil disobedience, such as the Chicago Police Department (CPD), would have understood that the protesters’ arms were not just stuck in the PVC pipe, but fastened together within it. But instead of calling upon the CPD for assistance, the UCPD rashly used force to physically remove their human problem. This removal process was not clean: It involved dragging individuals across construction site gravel and pulling apart people whose limbs were attached together. The normal outcome of such prolonged, intensive police engagement—an arrest—did not occur. Instead, the UCPD decided that it is a force that can walk in, drag you out across the gravel, and call it a day, shedding entirely the burdensome corpus of the legal process. In this way, the University completely eliminated the imperfect and punitive, but at least still extant, avenues of deliberation that the criminal legal system provides. And when police actions are not backed up by arrests, they do not have to be explained or examined in a court of law.

Beyond legal proceedings, there is another formal avenue that the seven protesters have open to them: the police complaint process. However, there are multiple clues that this process would not do the protesters justice. One fundamental aspect of the UCPD’s formal complaint process is that, unlike the CPD, it investigates complaints internally and comes to its own finding about a given complaint’s validity. Typically this process is undertaken by only one individual UCPD employee: Deputy Chief Kevin Booker. As a member of the Independent Review Committee (IRC), a body that reviews complaints against the UCPD, I have read and considered many investigative files compiled by Booker. These files are the sole evidence we rely on in our reviews. Booker was at the protest on May 19, in uniform, with a camcorder, filming. While the University would justify this as a neutral attempt to gather the most information possible in anticipation of possible complaints, it is difficult to imagine, in such a polarized situation, that a uniformed officer of the Department could act simply as an impartial investigator—the role Booker is supposed to play when investigating police complaints—rather than as, to some extent, a witness for the UCPD. Further, the fact that Assistant Chief of Police Gloria Graham was one of the officers who forcibly removed protesters makes this incident even harder to indict. Graham is the most powerful on-duty UCPD member, and the most powerful UCPD administrator aside from Chief of Police Marlon Lynch; she is Booker’s superior. In this context, the real difficulties that Booker might face if he decided to sustain a complaint regarding this situation become obvious. I do not believe, in a case such as this, that investigative materials provided to the IRC would necessarily be sufficient—or, frankly, unbiased enough—for even it, an entity designed to protect the integrity of the complaint process, to fully address what happened.

This situation should trouble us. In a public police force, decisions are supposed to be made with a general regard for the public good. In its massive and well-funded private police force, the University has created a law enforcement agency whose decisions are made with regards to the wellbeing of the University, however this might be defined. This interest of the University sometimes intersects with the public good; sometimes, it diverges. The various administrators who control the UCPD have a clear vested interest in the reputation of the University. The fact that stakeholders including the UCMC and Campus & Student Life administrators were involved in the decisions made on May 19 shows us that these decisions were made with regards to the broader private institutional interest of the University, rather than an appropriately narrow interest of public safety.

The primacy of this private interest affects how the UCPD is run on a day-to-day basis, as it racially profiles black and brown people to preserve the integrity of the Hyde Park bubble and as it refuses to release information that public police forces make available, such as policing policies and information about the racial composition of stops. It affects all those who enter into its jurisdiction, which is policed by a force that is more transparent with and accountable to people in power at the University of Chicago than it is to the public that it is supposed to serve. The 65,000 people who live in the UCPD’s jurisdiction deserve policing of the same quality and integrity that public forces are required to provide. Students are organizing to change this through demanding more from the UCPD through the student organization Southside Solidarity Network’s Campaign for Equitable Policing. What is yet to be seen is if the UCPD will push itself outside of its narrow institutional interests to truly be transparent and accountable, and to truly serve the public interest.

Emma LaBounty is a third-year in the College.