We at the University of Chicago are proud owners of the nation’s second-largest private police force. This means that the members of the UCPD have nearly the full power of law enforcement agents, but they represent the University of Chicago’s interests specifically, are employed by the University, and their stretch of power spans all the way from North Kenwood down through Woodlawn. The UCPD are the primary police force for 65,000 people—15,000 of whom are students. In Kenwood, 72 percent of them are black, in Hyde Park, 33 percent, in Woodlawn 91 percent. The University of Chicago student population is 4 percent black.
And although the UCPD has the full power of the law and the state backing its authority, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and subsequently refuses to make public any records of the race of the people it stops and searches. Of course, the obvious and implicit purpose of the UCPD is to protect the predominantly non-black student population from potential criminals hiding among our predominantly black neighbors. The UCPD exists to protect a portion of the population and be actively suspicious of the other category of citizens. The line that separates the protected and the criminalized falls along clear racial and class divides. And while the UCPD hides the data that would shed light on its stop-and-search practices there are testimonials upon testimonials that give otherwise sheltered students like you and me, insight into what it’s like to be part of the other half.
In an interview series filmed and posted online by the Students for Equitable Policing, Kevin— a young black man who used to work on campus for the Recycles Bike Sharing program—recounted how he was constantly stopped and questioned by the UCPD (who always assumed he was stealing bicycles), how he was once put in the back of a police car even after showing them his ID and explaining who he worked for, how he was often stopped by the same officers over and over. Throughout his life, he said, “They would just say stuff like, ‘Y’all shouldn’t be here, you know, what are y’all doing over here, what’s your purpose for being on campus, are you a student?’ The campus is right there, you know, so growing up of course you want to go over there and see what’s out there. You don’t want to stay on the same couple blocks that you’ve always been on your whole life. It’s like we weren’t wanted, you know, we aren’t welcome here. Y’all are outsiders, so stay outside.”
Another interviewee, Sean, recalled, “They’ve stopped me, like five times. They actually check our pockets, take all our stuff out, just be on some real disrespectful stuff, like have us stand there for a long time with our hands up on the wall and just checking our pockets, asking us questions that we couldn’t give them the answer to because we weren’t involved in nothing. Like where the gun at, or where the drugs at, or something like that, or why are y’all hanging in a group? But we’re just hanging out. It made me feel like I had no power in the situation, that I had to do what they said because they were either going to shoot me or lock me up… One of those two things, and I didn’t want that to happen, so I just cooperated.”
Yet another interviewee, Brandy, explained, “If you’re not a college student, then I feel sorry for you. Because if you live in the Woodlawn community, they’re going to mess with you. Best believe, they’re going to mess with you. The midway is like a borderline, like if you’re from the Woodlawn area, you can’t come over here.” He goes on to tell stories about being stopped and searched for a gun by the UCPD at just ten years old, about being threatened with arrest by a University police officer if he was ever caught walking through campus again—even though his only crime had been walking down the street with his brother and his friends. He ends the interview by shaking his head and saying, “When I was little I thought they were good, you know, I thought ‘they take the bad guys away’—but the police ain’t what you think they is.”
When I walk down the street alone at night and see the University police, it makes me feels safer. When I walk around with a group of friends, I don’t worry about being stopped and searched and questioned and possibly subjected to violence. Can you imagine feeling afraid of the police? Try really hard. Because 50,000 of your neighbors rely on the UCPD as their primary police force—representatives of their government and the laws of their city—and it exists to monitor, confine, and arrest them, rather than keep them safe. The race and wealth of a person should not impact the kind of protection they get from their police force, and it shouldn’t invite persecution or harassment or violence from their police force either. A police force should not be privately owned—holding power over everyone, but valuing only a few.
There is nothing wrong with a university, keeping its own security force, especially in a busy urban setting. Our administration absolutely should have some type of protection for its students on campus—ready to respond to and prevent real crime and violence that may come from outside the student body or from within it. However, imposing an official police force onto 50,000 non–university affiliated people is not justifiable. The UCPD has the power to make arrests, use guns and nonlethal weapons, randomly stop and search and detain individuals—but it is only here to serve and protect our overwhelmingly non-black, affluent student body. We are viewed by the city, administration, and University of Chicago Police Department as potential victims, while the rest of the community, because of their race and their perceived socioeconomic class, are automatically seen as potential criminals instead.
The UCPD is wrong on principle and is steeped in blatant misconduct in practice. Institutionalized racism, with our school’s name painted across it, exists in Hyde Park to benefit us, and we have blindly accepted it. We should be ashamed.
Colette Robicheaux is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.