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The University of Chicago is struggling with a rise in violent crime off campus.

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After a recent graduate was shot and killed during a robbery in the Hyde Park neighborhood near the University of Chicago’s campus last month, the university announced plans to work more closely with the Chicago Police Department to increase policing and surveillance in the neighborhoods around the campus.

The Nov. 9 killing of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a 24-year-old recent graduate of the master’s program in statistics, who was originally from China, marked the third instance of a student or recent alumnus killed by gun violence in the city within the past year.

Yiran Fan, a 30-year-old Ph.D. student form China, was killed during a random shooting rampage in Chicago in January, and Max Solomon Lewis, a 20-year-old undergraduate, died in July after being hit by a stray bullet while riding a Chicago Transit Authority train.

After Zheng’s death, more than 200 Chicago students, many of them international students, organized a rally calling for safety improvements. And about 400 faculty members signed an open letter asking university leaders to take immediate, specific actions to address violence on and around the campus.

“These recent tragedies have had a negative impact on the reputation of our university,” the faculty letter says. “They have also severely affected our capability of attracting and retaining talented students and researchers. In fact, UofC is being depicted as one of the most dangerous campuses in the United States by several international news outlets. Even more concerning, the repeated gun violence on and around campus has started to affect our students’ willingness to go to classes in-person. With the recent surge of violence and crime on and around campus, it is upon us to take concrete actions. Anti-violence should be made TOP priority at the University.”

In response, the university announced a series of actions to increase policing and surveillance on and around the campus. While these plans respond directly to the many calls for increased security, they also run counter to broader concerns about policing on and near college campuses, and a larger national student movement focused on defunding or abolishing campus police forces, which gained steam following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

Actions announced by the University of Chicago include increased foot and vehicular police patrols on and near the campus, the addition of more security cameras and license plate readers on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods, an expansion of a program that offers free Lyft rides to students in the areas around campus, the establishment of a new 24-hour “strategic operations center” for the University of Chicago Police Department, and the creation of a new victims’ services unit to support victims of serious crimes in the UCPD’s patrol area.

The university also announced plans for “expanded coordination between the University and city police departments, including walking beats that will increase the visibility of officers near campus” and “the permanent assignment of more officers to the CPD district that includes the Hyde Park area.”

Chicago Police Department superintendent David Brown said during a Nov. 17 forum that the force added six permanent positions to the Second District, which serves Hyde Park, and will add 10 more by the end of the year, followed by an additional 10 early next year.

“What we want to have is some permanent walking beats in and around this campus,” said Brown. “It’s one thing to have officers assigned coming from another part of the city. They’re not familiar. It’s a stopgap. A more aggressive solution is to have officers permanently assigned both walking and patrolling in cars, so that the familiarity is there and the presence is felt.”

Brown also emphasized the importance of policing technology and said video cameras, license plate readers and accounts of witnesses were all critical in apprehending a suspect who has been charged in Zheng’s death.

“If we hadn’t had LPRs [license plate readers] in the area and across Chicago, we wouldn’t have solved this case. If we hadn’t had pod cameras on the campus of University of Chicago, we wouldn’t have solved this case. If we hadn’t had a witness come forward and give us the license plate, we wouldn’t have solved this case,” he said. “Without question, this idea of more license plate readers, more pod cameras will make us all safer.”

Eric Heath, the University of Chicago’s associate vice president for safety and security, said the university and city police departments have always had a good relationship.

“But by and large I think, like most police departments, we work towards the same goal but not necessarily on a day-to-day basis in a collaborative manner,” Heath said in an interview.

“Where we’re hoping to make the biggest changes—and some of the things we’ve already done—is more frequent joint task force–type missions, when you talk about robbery reduction, when you talk about selective traffic enforcement—doing that more on a joint and consistent basis.”

Heath said that while violent crime is down about 50 percent on campus compared to 2020, there’s been a marked increase in violent crimes in the neighborhoods around the campus and throughout the city since the start of the pandemic. The University of Chicago Police Department is the primary police agency for the Chicago campus, and it serves as a secondary police agency, supporting the Chicago Police Department, in patrolling an extended area off campus.

The steps the university is taking in collaboration with the Chicago Police Department have come at the same time Columbia University is in conversations with New York Police Department and New York City officials about safety on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods following the fatal Dec. 2 stabbing of a doctoral student, Davide Giri, near the campus. A second victim, Roberto Malaspina, who had just arrived in New York from Italy to begin independent research as a visiting scholar at Columbia’s School of the Arts, was injured in the attack, according to the university. A Barnard College student, Tessa Majors, was killed in Morningside Park near the Barnard and Columbia campuses in December 2019.

Columbia has not yet announced the outcomes of its discussions with police and city officials.

S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, said that the actions Chicago is taking are typical of “the types of security that universities in urban areas have implemented for decades when faced with increased threats … they’re following tried and true procedures for increasing security in an urban environment around a campus.”

Carter observed, however, that UCPD and the Chicago Police Department lack a formal memorandum of understanding, and such an agreement would be an “industry standard type of document to have in place, particularly when there’s this level of collaboration.” (Heath said a formal MOU is under consideration, but it’s not something the Chicago Police Department has entertained in the past.)

Some student and community groups oppose Chicago’s plans to increase policing and surveillance in the areas around campus. A petition endorsed by student and community groups calls for the cessation or reversal of any plans to increase policing and surveillance; for disarming, defunding and ultimately disbanding the university police force; and for investments in “community-led initiatives to end gun violence by meeting people’s needs, addressing root causes, and creating healthy, accountable communities.”

“We acknowledge that policing is not a solution to the brutal violence of today, but rather part of what has led us to it,” says the petition, which was signed by 29 organizations and more than 800 individuals. “Hyde Park and Woodlawn are already flooded with police. They are patrolled by scores of cops from both CPD and UCPD, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of security guards and ‘bluelight’ emergency phones ready to summon cops anywhere at a moment’s notice. Most commercial areas are blanketed in surveillance cameras. But to what end?”

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Chicago chapter also condemned the plan to increase policing in neighborhoods around the Chicago campus.

“In the aftermath of the death of Shaoxiong ‘Dennis’ Zheng, we have seen an increase in racist, anti-Black sentiment, especially from Asian international students and community members,” the organization said in a statement. “While we fully empathize with the fears and concerns following the deaths of three UChicago students or recent graduates in the past year, two of whom were international Chinese students, we also recognize that gun violence is a complex issue that our communities have been reckoning with for decades. Hyde Park is one of the most policed neighborhoods in Chicago. Increasing policing and surveillance will not deter future gun violence because policing and surveillance do not address the root causes of violence, such as decades of disinvestment, structural racism, poverty, trauma, and lack of opportunity. Furthermore, ramping up policing and surveillance will contribute to the harassment, racial profiling, and police brutality that Black students and residents already experience.”

In a Dec. 10 message, Chicago president Paul Alivisatos and provost Ka Yee C. Lee acknowledged that “law enforcement actions are not enough, and we must do more to support the social and economic health of the communities surrounding the university to address the root causes of violence.” They wrote that the university “will be expanding investments in research and community-led initiatives to advance strategies for violence reduction” and would announce specific initiatives in January.

“The loss of incredibly promising lives to violence, in the University community and in neighborhoods across our city, is a toll we cannot accept,” Alivisatos and Lee wrote. “Our collective commitment must honor their memory and help secure a safer future.”

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