UCPD’s shooting of student in mental health crisis highlights the academy’s role in police brutality
UC & other schools aren't only complicit, but are active stakeholders in the mass-incarceration & overall harm of Black & Brown communities
By Cosette Hampton
Last Tuesday night, an officer of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) shot 4th year student Charles Thomas, who was having a mental health crisis. For those familiar with the University’s conflicting statements on safe spaces, trigger warnings and free speech, it should come as no surprise that even students are not safe when interacting with UChicago’s private police force.
The first (recorded) time that UCPD wrongfully injured a student was in 2004, when patrolmen Donald Jenkins and Anthony Cochran assaulted Clemmie Carthans. The first-year Black student at the School of Social Service Administration was harassed and forced to show identification, which then escalated into being pushed onto the ground, punched in the mouth and kicked in the torso. In 2006, after Carthans filed a civil-action suit against the University of Chicago, both officers were found innocent by a federal court.
In 2010, the University was accused of racial profiling by students who witnessed the arrest and assault of a Black fourth year student, Mauriece Dawson, at a campus library. At the time, University spokespeople declared that the University could not drop charges against Dawson once they had already been filed. It wasn’t until four years later that UCPD began selectively releasing patrol and arrest data that affirmed students’ and young Black community members’ stories about racial profiling.
Over the course of 10 months between 2015 and 2016, 93% of people UCPD stopped, questioned or searched were Black though Black people only made up 59% of the patrol area. Upon the release of the first, somewhat skimpy report, community organizers, student groups and State Representatives demanded more consistent availability of arrest and stop-data with proposed amendments to the Private College Campus Police Act. These efforts were shot down in the House, making UCPD exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests that could produce more findings about bias within the Department.
Not only has the University of Chicago terrorized its own students via shootings, racial profiling and economic exploitation, but its police force is also not held accountable even to the same inadequate transparency requirements that public police forces are (or, should be) held to.
The sting of police brutality is felt the strongest at the intersection of ability, mental health, gender expression and race,. Since 2016, UCPD has been expanding past campus boundaries to patrol more communities, including those where very few are affiliated with the University, leading to more arrests, tickets and harassment of Black and Brown people who did not consent to be double-patrolled by both the UCPD and the Chicago Police Department (CPD).
The University of Chicago has long-employed broken-windows policies and policing strategies in order to protect its property and those students and faculty who resemble their privileged, mostly white target demographic. For those who appear to be Black, Brown, poor, or mentally unstable, UCPD transforms from a tool of protection to a tool of oppression and exclusion for the sake of the safety of the campus elite.
On the University of Chicago Urban Lab’s (UL) website, the Crime and Health Labs promote a study initiative labeled “Mental Health Emergencies: Alternative Response and Treatment” (MHEART) to critique the ways that emergency responders interact with those suffering with mental illness. The webpage states, “Calls to 911 often involve people experiencing a behavioral crisis. Compared to other emergency situations, contact between police and those in behavioral health crisis have a higher chance of escalating and resulting in a violent or otherwise harmful outcomes.”
But if the University can recognize (via research) the negative impact of policing on those having mental health crises but cannot employ trauma-informed practices within its own police force, how can we trust them to influence change on a city, or nation-wide level?
The UCPD shooting comes not too long after the murder of Decynthia Clements about 40 miles outside of Chicago by the Elgin police. Decynthia, who police were told was seeing a therapist for suicidal ideation, was shot multiple times less than .66 seconds after she exited her vehicle.
Just this past Wednesday in New York City, NYPD shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a Black man with bipolar disorder, without warning. Police brutality and the killing of people experiencing mental health emergencies highlight major deficiencies in State and State-sponsored institutions’ ability to keep all people safe.
The University of Chicago and other higher-education institutions like the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) are not only complicit, but are active stakeholders in the mass-incarceration, over-policing, displacement and overall harm of Black and Brown communities. This shooting of a University student cannot be held separate from the University’s role in policing the broader community area, refusing to support its students and staff in creating a union, dragging its feet on opening up the Trauma Center and refusing to support Woodlawn residents’ call for a Community Benefits Agreement for the upcoming Obama Center.
The University of Chicago’s hypocrisy regarding trauma-informed practices is even clearer, considering how the UL analyzes CPD data to develop “hot spot” areas in Chicago for targeted policing and harassment. IIT parallels this activity in its own role as the maintainer of the CPD’s Strategic Subject List (SSL) and gang-database. Academic institutions in Chicago are joining forces with the city and mimicking abusive criminalizing behavior to keep Black and Brown people underemployed and over-policed.
When private institutions are encouraged to develop databases and lists with sensitive data to disproportionately target Black people and immigrants based on ambiguous details, private institutions then attain more power to control the flow of public resources.
What we are facing in the City of Chicago, especially on the Upper South Side, is a second wave of Urban Renewal. Shooting students in dark allies without even trying to use another form of non-violent apprehension, having a police force that does not carry less lethal weapons like tasers and occupying the role of resource-gate-keeper in the Hyde Park and Woodlawn communities as marginalized people are silenced and pushed out—these are just aggressive expansions of social control.
It should not require students being shot during a crisis to demand accountability from the University. Community members and young people attending surrounding high schools have suffered from the same brutalities for too long. Students and others impacted by the University should not stop at reform within UCPD, but should take it as a microcosm of widespread abuses of disabled, LGBTQIA+ and Black and Brown people by the Chicago Police Department.
The narrative that more training for UCPD or CPD officers will result in fewer instances like the ones mentioned is a harmful one, and only works to funnel more money and resources into a violent, punitive carceral system. University officials say the officer who shot Thomas had training in mental health first aid, and many CPD officers have Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) as well. However, both police forces still operate in ways that make being disabled life-threatening when police are called to a scene.
Student coalitions and community organizations like UChicago Student Action, UC United, UChicago GSU, Black Lives Matter Chicago and the Black Youth Project 100 are and have been mobilizing to hold the UCPD accountable throughout this week, and you can support them by signing this petition. Organizers are calling for necessary reforms like the disarming of UCPD officers and reduction of their budget, increasing competent and free mental health resources on campus and in surrounding communities, and bolstering transparency in UCPD’s reporting standards (see them here). Real resistance necessitates a major occupation—not just to get the attention of the administration with long, dry emails, but with community-driven change and action.
Cosette Hampton, AB ’17, is the Organizing Co-Chair within the Chicago Chapter of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), maintaining various leadership roles in the chapter’s local campaigns like #SayHerName, Honor Her Labor, and the Fund to Free Us supporting incarcerated Black women and Queer folks. Cosette is also a current MPP candidate at the Harris School of Public Policy, focusing on anti-poverty research and housing policy. She is a native Chicagoan from the South Side and defines herself, using Alice Walker’s term, as a radical Womanist who is fighting towards abolition and against anti-Blackness and systemic oppression using research, community organizing and academic scholarship.