"A Wall Around Hyde Park": The History and the Future of the UCPD

 /  June 2, 2014, 9 a.m.

The UCPD On Patrol

Hyde Park is one of the safest neighborhoods in Chicago.

In 2012, there were 506 murders in Chicago—more than any other city in the United States. The national media quickly dubbed the city “the murder capital of America.” 

None of these killings took place in Hyde Park. 

Even as Woodlawn endured twenty-one homicides and Washington Park recorded the highest murder rate in the city, Hyde Park reported a decrease in violent crime, with a lower rate than North Side neighborhoods like Lakeview and Logan Square

This year, Chicago has seen over 820 shootings, but only one in Hyde Park and two in Kenwood.

The neighborhood owes much of its safety to a highly unusual police force. With over one hundred full-time officers, the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) is one of the largest campus forces in the country.

It patrols much of the South Side, covering all of Hyde Park and Kenwood, as well as parts of Bronzeville and Woodlawn. The force does more than simply patrol this zone; the UCPD boasts plainclothes officers and investigative squads, going far beyond the campus guards most universities employ.

A plaque hanging in the lobby of the UCPD headquarters on 61st and Drexel serves as a daily reminder of the risks faced by officers: the annual Steven Mitchell Award honors the force’s best member; it is named for a university officer killed in the line of duty in 1983.

Unfortunately, the UCPD’s stellar record of crime reduction has come at a heavy cost.

Brandon Parker, an eighteen-year-old Woodlawn resident, is careful not to cross 59th Street, where he says that university police “stop and check you.”

Christian Clark, a high school sophomore who lives in Kenwood, complains that UCPD officers “harass people for no reason.” Once, while biking through campus, an officer pulled him over and asked, “what are you doing over here?”

Andre Harmon, a twenty-one-year-old art student, avoids biking through the university after being pulled over several times by the university police. He built his bicycle himself, but UCPD officers have repeatedly asked him to explain where it came from, a question he views as accusatory and racially motivated. 

The stories of these young men are not unusual. Since its creation in the late 1950s the UCPD has been dogged by accusations of racial profiling, leveled by both University of Chicago students and community members, primarily African Americans. Today, policing tactics are hotly debated around the country; New York City has witnessed a powerful backlash against the practice known as “stop and frisk.” Though the case of the UCPD is different in many ways, it raises similar questions about the use of police power. Even as Barack Obama sits in the White House, students of color still report unwarranted police stops at the university where he taught, and many black teens refuse to even cross into his neighborhood for fear of the police.

“A Wall Around Hyde Park”

The origins of the UCPD lie amid the racial tumult of mid-century Chicago. In the 1940s, the city was profoundly segregated, with most African Americans confined to the tiny, overcrowded “Black Belt” on the South Side. Even after the courts dismantled legal segregation, white Chicagoans either fought their new neighbors or fled en masse. In 1950, most Woodlawn residents were white. Ten years later, blacks made up 89 percent of the population. 

After spending a frustrating year in Chicago fighting housing segregation, Martin Luther King Jr. declared that “the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn to hate.”

When integration began in Hyde Park in the 1950s, the University of Chicago responded forcefully but pragmatically. Relatively liberal Hyde Parkers began to welcome middle-class blacks into the neighborhood, while at the same time a university-funded organization, the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), oversaw the demolition of over six hundred buildings, a move that forced thousands of people, most of them poor and African American, out of the neighborhood.

Urban renewal slowed racial change in Hyde Park, but it did not eliminate crime. In 1968, a mugger shot Hyde Park’s alderman in the leg.

Later that year, a series of rapes horrified the community, while several sexual assaults committed by outsiders within university dorms during 1972 and 1973 led to a student outcry.

Crime posed a genuine threat to the university. Many students and faculty began to commute from the North Side, and the number of women enrolling dropped noticeably in the wake of the well-publicized crime wave.

A 1973 Maroon article reported that some students had even begun to carry illegal guns around Hyde Park; one declared that “the City and Hyde Park in particular is a jungle.”

Another student vowed to live in the neighborhood only if the university were to “build a wall around Hyde Park.”

Instead of building a wall, the university expanded the UCPD. By the mid-1970s, it had grown into a large department, staffed by nearly one hundred fully-sworn police.

While the new force began to reduce crime, it also stoked the race and class tensions exposed during urban renewal.

Officers sought to prevent crime by confronting people they suspected of being from outside Hyde Park, primarily African Americans. In 1968, one university official noted that “there's a rumor that all Negroes coming across the Midway are stopped and frisked.”

Alleged police profiling was not limited to the Midway. One area resident recalled watching officers systematically search all of the black men on a public bus while seeking a suspect in 1977.

These actions provoked anger and frustration from the university’s neighbors. However, the university ignored the criticism. SECC head Julian Levi responded that any effort to reduce tensions “will simply result in these [recent crime] gains being lost.”

A Community Police Force

Chicago has changed over the last forty years, as has the UCPD. In 1989, Rudy Nimocks became chief of the force. A former deputy superintendent in the Chicago Police Department and two-time finalist for city chief, Nimocks is also a longtime Woodlawn resident. Under his watch, the UCPD expanded its patrol area, moving the northern boundary from 47th Street to 39th and the southern border from 61st to 64th Street. Three decades after Woodlawn residents first complained about systematic police stops, they welcomed the first UCPD patrol car to cross 61st Street with a parade.

Nimocks remembers that “they loved it, they wanted us to come further; they wanted us to come all the way over to State Street.”

Today, many older Woodlawn residents praise the UCPD. Mary Hughes, who lives at 62nd and University, says, “I think they are excellent.”

Other locals interviewed for this article agree. Akbar Amin declared, “I’ve seen them stopping people. I’m glad they’re around here,” while Roger Mosely stated that “I’d say they’re helping.” Many residents also drew a distinction between the UCPD and the Chicago Police Department (CPD), which has a deeply troubled history in the neighborhood. Mosely reported that the CPD often bothers elderly residents, and Charles Hillard claims that the CPD is “aggressive all the time.”

Meanwhile, Pete Blodgett notes a “higher level of respect” for the UCPD in the community, characterizing local opinion as neutral, compared to sharply negative attitudes toward the city police.

“They Know We’re Not From Hyde Park”

Unlike older residents, young people in Woodlawn have few positive things to say about present-day UCPD tactics.

Jermell Akins is a high school student who lived in Woodlawn for a number of years. He was a sixth grader when the UCPD first stopped him. He and a friend were walking home from school when a squad car pulled up to them around 62nd and Dorchester. An officer got out, told the two pre-teen boys that they matched the description of a suspected shooter, and proceeded to pat down them down. He then drove off without an apology.

The stops grew more frequent as Akins grew older. Soon he and his group of friends were frisked “almost every day,” with the police telling them they matched the profiles of suspected criminals. Akins says “the first three times it happened, we thought it was a coincidence, but then it kept happening.” Sometimes the officers were polite and even friendly during the stops, but others shouted and swore at the boys, telling them to “shut the fuck up.” Akins says that avoiding police stops is “one of the main reasons I ride my bike.”

Brandy Williams, age 18, also lives in Woodlawn. He reports being frisked on a regular basis by officers who “know we’re not from Hyde Park.” Like Akins, he says many officers are courteous during the process. Still, he also remembers other stops that escalated dangerously. He claims that UCPD officers have threatened to beat and shoot him, slammed him into a squad car, pointed a gun at him, and told him to “go back to where you came from.”

Katon Sylvain is a sophomore at Kenwood Academy. One day, he and a white friend pretended to fight as they walked near the Midway. As Sylvain hit his friend with a piece of paper, the UCPD arrived and stopped the pair. They placed Sylvain in handcuffs, ignored his friend’s explanation, and only released the teen after he managed to call his mother. 

Several other young men and teenagers in Woodlawn reported being stopped and searched for weapons. A fourteen-year old recalled being followed home by a university police car; another young man complained of being handcuffed without cause. 

All felt that their race played a role in the stops, with UCPD officers targeting young black men they felt could be potential criminals.

Some university students have faced similar issues. Aerik Francis is a fourth-year. On his first day on campus, his father, who is African American, went to use the bathroom in Ratner Athletic Center after a twenty-hour drive from Colorado. A university police officer quickly intercepted him, asked for an ID, and then escorted him out of the building. 

Cameron Okeke, a third-year, has been stopped by the UCPD several times, with officers asking to see his student identification. Even when the police don’t stop him, “the way they were looking at me, analyzing people” makes him feel different from other university students. Okeke feels that “all students who fit the black teen-look feel like outsiders,” having to prove that they are students, or that they own their bikes and cars.

Crime Prevention

Ultimately, the accusations of racial profiling that have haunted the UCPD are deeply entwined with the tactics of proactive policing.

The UCPD has traditionally emphasized proactive policing as its primary tool to prevent crime against students. Robert Mason, a UCPD official who has worked on policing issues in Hyde Park since the 1960s, states that the “goal of any law enforcement agency is to prevent crime if you can.”

Former deputy chief Tom Phillips noted that after an increase in crime around Blackstone Avenue, his officers saturated the area. Phillips declared that “our primary objective is to deter crime, crime prevention.”

Unlike the New York Police Department and other departments at the center of the national debate about policing tactics, the University of Chicago Police Department does not endorse stop and frisk tactics.

Mason maintains that “our officers aren’t harassing anyone and don’t mean to, no individual or class of individuals. But if they have reason to stop someone, they will.”

Because of their personal experiences with the UCPD, the young men interviewed for this story disagree. They come from a range of backgrounds: one spoke of his gang ties, while several talked about their college plans. Still, they also have several things in common. All recounted times they had been stopped by the police without doing anything suspicious to prompt the stop. All are black. None had any doubt that their race played a role in police stops. It is clear from these stories, and those of university students, that interactions with the university police have created deep distrust among many young African Americans in and around Hyde Park. Their accounts suggest that in their efforts to protect a neighborhood surrounded by communities with high crime rates and almost entirely African American populations, some elements of the UCPD have come to use race as a proxy for suspicious behavior, deploying an easy shorthand that supersedes the difficult task of scanning for hints of potentially criminal behavior.

And such measures may be effective. If most young African American men in Woodlawn feel unwelcome near the university and local high school students learn to take a detour around campus, then the university police probably do steer some potential criminals away from Hyde Park. The problem is that to achieve these marginal gains in safety, the university police ultimately cause far greater harm.

An Anxious Neighborhood

It is tempting to view the complaints against the UCPD simply as evidence of an arrogant and heavy-handed police force. However, the problems faced by the force ultimately reflect the expectations placed on the police by the university administration and community. Since its creation, the UCPD has been asked to enforce boundaries between the university community and the outside world, while at the same time assuming responsibility to protect more and more areas outside of these borders.

Even as responsibilities expand for the UCPD, the force still answers to a university that is primarily concerned with the safety of its students and employees. Each year, the university brings thousands of students from suburbs and small towns across the United States and beyond to the South Side of Chicago. Rising crime threatened the university four decades ago, and it remains a danger today as the university climbs in the national academic rankings. University of Chicago administrators, students, and parents demand the highest possible level of safety in Hyde Park, and in doing so force UCPD officers in Woodlawn to make a difficult choice between providing the best possible policing for the neighborhood and maximizing the safety of those affiliated with the institution that employs them.

Individual fears compound institutional pressure and can spur police action on a day-to-day basis. Former UCPD chief Rudy Nimocks recalls that “often [university employees] call you for something that doesn’t warrant our police intervention and you have to be very careful with that.”

He remembers people calling to report that “‘I’ve never seen this person before’ [or] ‘this person is shabbily dressed’ or something like that.”

Faced with a heady mix of institutional and individual anxieties, it is not hard to see the source of tensions between the UCPD and many young people from the communities that border the university.

Attaining maximum security for the university community comes at a high price, and the price is mostly paid by those perceived as being from outside of the community’s borders. For university students, police questioning can make them feel singled out and unwelcome at their own school. For young men and women in Woodlawn and elsewhere, police treatment weakens trust in the force, while the experience of being targeted and frisked can be demeaning and profoundly hurtful. Even more, in a city as segregated as Chicago, Hispanic and black teens already face extra barriers, including deeply-entrenched institutional racism.

Being discouraged by the police from even walking through one of the top universities in America is deeply harmful both to these young people and to an institution that has historically lagged behind its peers in attracting minority students.

For local youth, fear of the university police is a real and powerful force. Third-year Cameron Okeke knows local teenagers who go out of their way to walk down King Drive rather than Ellis Avenue to avoid the UCPD. Since 2007, there have been fifteen homicides on or within a block of King between 51st and 60th. There were none on or around the same stretch of Ellis during that period.

According to Okeke, the university is “literally a black space” where local teenagers cannot venture.

At a community speak-out last year, one university student told the story of a teen who was asked to leave the Quad by the UCPD. She had been sitting on the grass, reading a book.

The University prides itself on a fostering “the life of the mind” but, paradoxically, it has created a campus that many local students are afraid to visit.

A Renewed Police Force

The officers of the UCPD are good men and women, most of them excellent police. Many of them live in South Side communities. Older Woodlawn residents also make it clear that the UCPD outperforms the Chicago police in many regards, treating most locals far better than the city police.

Furthermore, some of the UCPD’s decorated former officers argue that a more careful approach to police stops is both better for the community and more productive for the police. Walter Boodie was a CPD veteran before joining the UCPD as a sergeant. A model officer, he won the Mitchell Award for best officer three years in a row, busting a succession of serial burglars. Boodie criticizes harassment based on race or dress, saying “if they hadn’t done anything wrong, that’s the old Chicago madness.”

Boodie believes that even if officers need to stop a young person, they can do so with courtesy. He describes his own method: walk up to a young person, engage them in conversation, and then hand them his business card. Boodie argues that a well-trained officer can gauge intentions through a simple conversation, while also signaling the presence of clear-eyed officers.

Rudy Nimocks, the UCPD chief for twenty years, agrees. He says “the yardstick I use was that if you want to stop somebody for an interview on a public way, it had to because of what they were doing, not what they looked like. That was an absolute with me. I wouldn’t tolerate anything less.”

Many of the young men interviewed for this article agreed with Boodie and Nimocks, making it clear they had far fewer problems with stops by university police that were conducted with basic courtesy. Listening to the advice of these career police officers would go a long way toward lessening the deep distrust of the UCPD among young people in and around Hyde Park.

Even so, the answer to the troubles of the UCPD extends beyond the force. Community uneasiness about outsiders and a demand for maximum security in Hyde Park have been the crucial drivers of aggressive policing. The same community pressure has the greatest potential to drive change. Members of the university community can make it clear that their safety does not have to come at the cost of the civil rights of their neighbors and peers.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 classic of urban theory, Jane Jacobs commented on the groundbreaking urban renewal project then underway in Hyde Park. She wrote that the neighborhood could either deal with more outsiders and slightly higher street crime, or it could employ the “the extraordinary measure… of loosing police dogs every night to patrol its campus and hold at bay any human being in this dangerous … inner keep.”

She continued: “the barriers forced by the new projects at the edges of Hyde Park-Kenwood, plus extraordinary policing, may indeed keep out extraneous people with sufficient effectiveness. If so, the price will be hostility from the surrounding city and an ever more beleaguered feeling within the fort.”

Jacobs admonished the university, saying “the area is an embedded part of Chicago. It cannot wish away its location.”

For the last fifty years, the university insisted on trying to do just that. To a remarkable degree it has succeeded, creating a fortress on the South Side and buying slightly lower crime at a tremendous human cost.

Removing the walls of that fortress will be a long and arduous task, but also a worthwhile one. The UCPD has excelled at the difficult work of protecting the people under its charge. They will continue to do so for a long time to come. Still, the time has come to deal plainly with what the University of Chicago Police Department can do on behalf of the university community, and push for a policy that protects the university without harming those who live in its shadow.

Gloria Graham, Assistant Vice President and Assistant Chief of Police at the University of Chicago Police Department, responds to The Gate:

The University of Chicago Police Department does not deploy tactics that support racial profiling. There is a clear emphasis from our leadership that we will provide police services to this community while maintaining human dignity and respect. As a department, we often and openly discuss our policing strategies to ensure our officers are not engaging deliberately or inadvertently in bias-based policing.

In most instances when the UCPD makes contact with the community, it’s in response to residents calling and requesting police assistance to what they believe to be suspicious activity. We are a public safety entity and are compelled to respond to our community’s requests.

I can never overlook the opportunity to point out the amazing work our staff does each and every day. In addition to the continued decrease in violent crime in our patrol area, the UCPD’s involvement in our community continues to grow. Two years ago we began a mentoring program with 15 young men at one of the University’s charter schools. These students, who live in the North Kenwood neighborhood, were selected for the program because they were not reading at their grade level. The UCPD also works with more than 50 kids in the area through Blackstone Bicycle Works to teach them how to safely ride their bikes.

Additionally, the UCPD’s staff includes many officers raised in these very neighborhoods they now serve. Some of these police officers still live and raise their children here, and some of their kids attend the same neighborhood schools mentioned in this article.

Editors' Note: The image featured in this article is by Jamie Manley, and it was originally taken for the Chicago Maroon.

Andrew Fan


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