Ill. bill would require additional transparency at private university police departments

ILLINOIS — Just like municipal police officers, members of the University of Chicago Police Department have the authority to make arrests — both on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods. Unlike municipal police officers, however, they aren’t required to comply with the state’s public records law.

Under legislation introduced in the Illinois General Assembly, that could soon change.

A proposed amendment to the Private College Campus Police Act would require campus police departments at private universities, including at the University of Chicago, to publicly disclose any information that other law enforcement agencies are required to provide under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The legislation comes during a time of heightened scrutiny of the University of Chicago Police Department over perceived racial profiling and for infiltrating a campus protest. The bill also reflects a national conversation about the transparency of private college police departments. In January, Texas lawmakers proposed similar legislation and ESPN filed suit against the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to access law enforcement records pertaining to its student athletes.

“Many of my neighbors are very happy to have the presence of the University of Chicago police force, I think they do a good job of making the neighborhood a safer place,” said Rep. Barbara Currie, who introduced the legislation on Feb. 27. “But there are questions about what exactly their practices are and whether there are inappropriate activities or whether the university’s interests are always the same as the interests of the community.”

Currie, a Democrat who represents a district near the University of Chicago, said constituents’ concerns prompted the legislation, adding that without a centralized repository for information about the police department’s activities, residents “have been asking for greater transparency and greater accountability.”

The Private College Campus Police Act grants police departments at private universities the same authority as municipal or county law enforcement agencies. Today, the university police department employs about 100 state-certified police officers with full police powers. Their jurisdiction extends beyond campus into several neighborhoods.

When drafting the legislation, Currie said she took advice from the state’s attorney general, who said it would be best to amend the law granting police powers to private university police departments instead of changing the state’s public records law.

“To the extent that a private entity is behaving just like a public body — a police force — then they should be bound by the same kinds of requirements,” Currie said.

Although the University of Chicago and other private universities in Illinois are not required to comply with the state’s public records law, they are required to comply with the federal Clery Act, which requires universities to disclose crime statistics in an annual campus security report. They are also required to issue timely warning notices of crimes and maintain a daily crime log.

University of Chicago spokesman Jeremy Manier declined to comment about the legislation, but he said the university is evaluating the police department’s processes to ensure transparency.

In response to perceived racial profiling of local residents by university police officers, the Southside Solidarity Network launched the Campaign for Equitable Policing to address a lack of oversight over the university police department, which “refuses to make public any of their records on the race of those they stop and search.”

In March 2013, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum confirmed in a university-wide email an officer with the university police department had posed as a protestor during a demonstration on campus.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.