Say you are driving around Chicago and you happen to run a red light. There are no Chicago police officers around, but there is a university police car right behind you. Could you still get a ticket?
That’s exactly what Jef Johnson was wondering when he started noticing University of Chicago Police Department cars all over his Bronzeville neighborhood.
Here’s the question Jef sent our way:
Are police forces at local universities real police or simply security companies? How much policing power do they have?
We found a straightforward legal answer about how this works in Illinois. There is a spectrum of authority that ranges from security guard to all-out cop. At the far end of that spectrum are Jef’s own University of Chicago police. He didn’t know it at the time but UCPD is almost unique, with a particularly strong hand when it comes to power and jurisdiction. Those officers don’t just protect students, staff and campus — the UCPD serves as the primary police force for 65,000 Chicagoans, and most are not affiliated with the university.
That prompted a question that should interest anyone, even those who never encounter these officers: How can a private police force get jurisdiction over so much of the public?
Not your father’s rent-a-cops
Let’s start with that legal distinction we found. If you’re anything like Jef, you probably assume that campus police officers aren’t real police, and they have little authority other than the power to break up rowdy parties.
“I always thought somehow that they were rent-a-cops,” Jef said.
But that’s not always the case, according Cora Beem, who manages mandated training for the Illinois Law Enforcement Standards & Training Board. She said the big distinction to be made is between campus security guards and campus police. The latter undergo the same basic training and certification that state and municipal police officers do. With that certification, they have the same authority as any other police officer in the state, even if they are privately employed.
Illinois’ public universities employ campus police, but private universities can choose to hire plain old security guards. Those guards might be armed, but they don’t have the power to give Jef Johnson a ticket, and they certainly cannot patrol off campus.
Like many private schools in Illinois, the University of Chicago voluntarily upgraded its security force to a police force 25 years ago. According to Beem, that means they are definitely not rent-a-cops.
“They can write you a ticket. They can arrest you,” Beem explained. “They can counsel and release you, so yes, they’re real cops.”
The UCPD’s jurisdiction
With more than 100 full-time officers, the University of Chicago’s police department is one of the largest private police forces anywhere. Not only that, UCPD also has a really big patrol area — they cover 6.5 square miles, most of which is beyond the core of the University of Chicago's South Side campus.
But why can UCPD officers patrol so far from campus in the mid-South Side? According to Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at University of Chicago Law School, the department’s status is almost unique.
“The deal is that there is a city ordinance in Chicago that grants the police superintendent the power to appoint special policemen for the city of Chicago,” he explained.
This ordinance allows private police forces to assume the powers and responsibilities of municipal police, not just on campus but in surrounding neighborhoods. UCPD is only one of two private forces in Chicago with this “special police” designation. The other force is that of Northwestern University Law School, but its patrol area extends just a few blocks beyond its Streeterville campus north of Chicago’s Loop.
Once the ordinance was passed in 1992, UCPD negotiated its extended jurisdiction with Chicago’s police superintendent. To the north, University of Chicago’s main campus stops at 55th Street. UCPD’s jurisdiction, however, extends all the way to 37th Street, even farther than Jef Johnson’s home in Bronzeville.
Futterman says Chicago's police superintendent has granted UCPD more independence than it once had. In years past, university police needed administrative assistance to complete arrests.
“The arrest, though, would be formalized and would be processed at a local chicago police department district station, usually whatever district the arrest was because UCPD operated in more than one Chicago police district,” Futterman explained. Last year that changed. Now UCPD reports directly to the state and can process arrests independently. According to the university, this arrangement allows both departments to operate more efficiently.
Maintaining a large police force is expensive, but the university says its worth it. On this, an emailed statement from the UCPD reads: “The extended patrol area enhances safety and security through the mid-South Side, which is home to a large number of University of Chicago faculty members, students and staff.” The statement mentions the university’s interest in protecting its charter schools and other properties within the extended patrol area.
The community speaks
UCPD’s jurisdiction doesn’t just include university students and employees; again, the department protects approximately 65,000 residents. How do they feel about UCPD’s presence in their neighborhoods?
On Wednesday, October 29, Hyde Park’s Experimental Station held a forum for students and South Side residents to discuss exactly that. Organizers also invited former UCPD chief Rudy Nimocks. He was at the helm when UCPD expanded its jurisdiction. As he recalls it, the university received community support as it broadened its jurisdiction.
“We had public hearings,” he said. “We were asked to come in. At each one of the sessions I said, ‘We’ll stay here as long as you want us.’ That’s how it’s been ever since.”
Nimocks has a point. Almost every speaker at the community forum expressed gratitude that UCPD has made their neighborhoods safer. That being said, almost every speaker also had a story to tell about UCPD racially profiling black residents who live within the extended jurisdiction.
Jamel Triggs, a young black man who works at the Experimental Station’s bike shop, said he had been stopped by UCPD six times since he returned from the Marine Corps in May. “They’re supposed to be protecting and serving us. That’s supposed to be the goal,” he said. “It’s supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.”
According to Triggs, the neighborhood doesn’t feel safer if he has to worry about being stopped by UCPD. He said he is also concerned about the safety of the younger kids he mentors at the bike shop. “I don’t want these kids walking around being scared of the police and being scared of the gangbangers out in the streets,” he said, “because I was, and it hurts.”
A student group called South Side Solidarity Network has launched a campaign to end perceived racial profiling by UCPD. The trouble is, all their evidence is anecdotal. To firm up accusations of wrongdoing, SSSN has asked UCPD to release records indicating the race of residents the department stops and searches. So far, the department has refused.
Another emailed statement responds to accusations of racial profiling. “The University of Chicago Police Department does not deploy tactics that support racial profiling,” it states. “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.”
Without releasing records and data, however, UCPD is asking the public to take them at their word.
Private police and public accountability
This is where Jef Johnson’s curiosity about potential traffic stops in Bronzeville morphed into a much bigger question about the transparency and accountability of a private police force. The 1992 Chicago ordinance that allows for the creation of special police includes technical language about certificates and licensing fees, but it doesn’t address the public’s right to information when a private force takes on the responsibilities of municipal police. UCPD is not a governmental agency, therefore it is not required to release records under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.
The University of Chicago does have a process for investigating complaints against UCPD, but that process will soon get an overhaul. Until now, all investigations were performed in-house, by a fellow UCPD officer. In response to criticism about UCPD’s perceived lack of oversight, the university recently announced the hiring of a new director of professional accountability. This new position will not be filled by a uniformed officer.
So what did Jef think about all this?
“This is much bigger than I thought when I asked the question,” he said. “I worry about a private police force. It just sounds like maybe we’re handing too much power to them.” Jef said he is most concerned that the average Chicagoan might never know that UCPD had such a huge jurisdiction.
“It’s scary in that sense,” he said. “I’m just finding this out, and I’ve been living in this area ten years.”
Now we have an answer. Who asked the question?
Judging by the number of questions Jef Johnson has submitted to our list of question-based story pitches, he is one very curious guy. (For the record, that would be seven ... and counting!) If you haven’t run across any of his questions we haven’t answered yet, you might remember Jef as the truck enthusiast who launched our investigation about pickup truck laws in Chicago.
It turns out this question about university police was also inspired by Jef’s driving habits. He says he first began wondering about UCPD’s authority on a day when President Barack Obama was visiting his home in the Kenwood neighborhood.
“They blocked off a lot of my streets, so I was taking some back streets and I saw University of Chicago Police cars in areas that seem far away from the University of Chicago.”
When Jef isn’t thinking up questions for Curious City, he’s a wedding minister employed by the city of Chicago.
Ellen Mayer is the Curious City intern. Follow her on Twitter at @ellenrebeccam.