HYDE PARK — University of Chicago students, faculty and neighbors are calling on the university’s private police force to lift the veil and follow to the same rules of transparency and accountability as the Chicago Police Department.
“They don’t release basic things like their handbook, which you can get from the Chicago Police Department,” said Ben Chametzky, an international studies undergrad and one of more than 800 people who have signed a petition asking for greater transparency and accountability from the university’s police.
The petition delivered to the 6054 S. Drexel Ave. headquarters on Friday calls for the university police to release its policy handbook, open more information about arrests to review by the public and smooth the process for reporting misconduct by officers.
The university would not comment directly on the petition but a U. of C. spokesman said "best practices for accredited police departments do not include the full release of policies and procedures."
While critics say most university police forces are more open about policies, the U. of C. says its force carries powers beyond a typical college security operation, including policing off campus.
The university’s more than 100-officer-strong force is fully private and not subject to many of the same laws as the Chicago Police Department, like the Freedom of Information Act, that require a minimum level of transparency.
Chametzky said the student group that started the petition, Coalition for Equitable Policing, became concerned after several incidents in recent years where critics said the university police overstepped their authority when black students were involved.
The University of Chicago Police Department has faced heightened scrutiny in the past four years, beginning in 2010 when an officer was alleged to have used excessive force to remove a black undergraduate from the library for allegedly being too loud. Last year, the department faced criticism for its handling of protests by U. of C. students and black residents of Woodlawn when a detective went undercover to infiltrate a rally without authorization from her superiors.
Chametzky said without the ability to look into whom the university’s police force is stopping for questioning, it’s not possible to know for sure if allegations of racial profiling are isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern.
An 11-person board of faculty, staff and community members appointed by the provost reviews complaints about the department once a year and issues a report on its findings.
“The report is at least one way that the university attempts to create some transparency about the UCPD,” said Richard McAdams, the current chairman of the Independent Review Committee and a professor at the Law School.
The committee makes recommendations to the university police, but has no power to enforce its decisions on whether police acted inappropriately.
University of Chicago Police Department spokesman Bob Mason said the force is "unique" because it does not need the assistance of city police to complete an arrest and reports directly to the state.
Until last year, the university police force’s arrest reports were processed by the Chicago Police Department’s Wentworth District and the public could petition the Chicago police for some files related to arrests by the university’s officers.
“It is critically important that the University of Chicago Police Department and the university is transparent,” said Craig Futterman, the former chairman of the Independent Review Committee and a lawyer in the university’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, which works on issues of police accountability.
“One of the things you would want from a research institution is collection of data — we’re empiricists,” said Futterman.
Futterman said he was surprised many of the issues in the petition were still being debated because the university police were close to satisfying many of the demands two years ago when he chaired the committee.
“I really got the sense that they were working to make things better,” Futterman said.
Jeremy Manier, a spokesman for the university, said the university police’s policy was vetted when it began pursuing certification by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).
“Best practices for accredited police departments do not include the full release of policies and procedures, though the CALEA accreditation process includes a meticulous review of UCPD policies,” Manier said.
Futterman said he was concerned to the process of lodging a complaint about misconduct by an officer was not more convenient.
The university police currently require that a complainant make an appointment to sign an affidavit.
Manier, noting that the Chicago Police Department also requires a signed affidavit, said complaints can be started online or over the phone. He said if complainants can't make it to police headquarters, an investigator would "arrange a time and place of their choosing so they can sign the affidavit, including times outside business hours and on weekends."
The Chicago Police Department is required by law to get a signed affidavit from the complainant, but the official complaint can be lodged through the Independent Police Review Authority.
“I thought there was a real commitment on the University of Chicago Police Department’s part to open the complaint and commendation process,” Futterman said. “It is critically important to make the complaint process as easy as possible because some people will be intimidated.”
Futterman said that "a retrenchment in that area would be a little surprising.”
Students are currently leading the charge for changes within the university police.
On March 6, the student government voted to sign the petition and urge the university administration to allow the elected body to directly appoint the three student members of the Independent Review Committee.
The student government was reacting in part to the rejection of Toussaint Losier for a seat on the review committee. Losier was arrested by university police last year during a protest at the hospital and alleged the university police used excessive force to break up the rally.
Administrators in the provost’s office were reportedly concerned Losier’s arrest would compromise his impartiality.