April 16, 2015

True transparency requires the law

Though UCPD’s pledge to release more information is a positive step, Illinois House bill is still necessary to ensure transparency

Alice Xiao / The Chicago Maroon

For more than two years, University of Chicago students, Chicago aldermen, Illinois legislators, and community members have called for the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) to become more transparent. This week, the UCPD announced significant steps toward this goal. While this represents progress, the University should still support legislative reforms to increase police transparency.

By this June, the UCPD will launch a new website. Updated daily, it will provide detailed information about every time a UCPD officer stops a person or vehicle, including the reason for the stop and the race and gender of the suspect. The UCPD will also disclose more detailed data about each arrest its officers make and provide more detailed descriptions of its policies and practices. This new website will ensure that more specific and recent data is available to members of the public and will make information the UCPD already discloses much easier to access.

This announcement is a significant and welcome step in the direction of greater transparency. The UCPD deserves credit for engaging productively with its critics, including the Coalition for Equitable Policing, and with Hyde Park residents not affiliated with the University. The new disclosure policy takes their concerns seriously and makes an encouraging attempt to address them.

But while this announcement increases transparency, the UCPD remains troublingly unaccountable to members of the community. The UCPD’s jurisdiction goes far beyond campus, extending north all the way to East 37th Street, south to East 64th Street, west to South Cottage Grove Avenue, and east to South Lake Shore Drive. As a result, UCPD officers interact daily with local residents who have no affiliation with the University. Students with concerns about the UCPD’s practices can, at the very least, push their Student Government representatives to raise the issue with University administrators. Community members who are directly affected by the UCPD’s actions and policies have no such representatives, and have only as much input as the University chooses to give them.

Simply put, while the UCPD’s decision to disclose additional information is admirable, it should not be in their power to make this decision in the first place. The UCPD must be accountable to the community, not just to University administrators. Illinois House Bill 3932 is a good first step toward such accountability. The bill, which is currently being debated in the state legislature and was introduced in response to repeated requests for information regarding UCPD practices, would make private university police forces subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the same way that public law enforcement agencies are. This would ensure that the UCPD is always held to the same standards of disclosure as the Chicago Police Department, and would make the commendable changes the UCPD announced this week permanent.

Passing H.B. 3932 would take UCPD transparency out of University administrators’ discretion and make it a matter of law. The bill’s authors have asked the University for input; they should support it, and the Illinois General Assembly should act quickly to pass the bill. Students can help this process along by contacting their state legislators, Representative Barbara Flynn Currie and Senator Kwame Raoul, in support of H.B. 3932. Decisions about police transparency should be made by the public, not by officials of a private entity—even though, this time, the UCPD got it right.

—The Maroon Editoral Board