Illustration by Haley Tweedell

The murder of University of Chicago alumnus Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng is a tragic event that will have a lasting impact on the University community and Hyde Park neighborhood. Zheng’s death marks the third university affiliate to have died as a result of gun violence in a ten-month period. 

The grief and fear associated with these losses is palpable as community members consider strategies to make the campus and surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood safer. One proposal is a public letter signed by over 300 University of Chicago faculty. The letter demands that the University make anti-violence a “TOP priority” by enlarging the University’s private police force’s (UCPD’s) patrol footprint, establishing a University committee to oversee UCPD policies, and engaging “with the Southside [sic] community to come up with a long-term plan to tackle violence.” 

The request to enlarge UCPD borders involves increasing surveillance in Hyde Park to ensure “that every block and every street corner is covered in surveillance cameras” and that security guards patrol “every road crossing in the neighborhood.” 

Despite being framed as an “anti-violence” intervention, the demand for surveillance cameras and increased patrolling fails to recognize the scope of security cameras and cops that are already omnipresent in our neighborhood. The potential for additional tragedy due to well-documented racial bias in policing and surveillance cannot be understated. 

Though the faculty letter calls on the University to engage with South Side communities, it is not clear how the initiatives they are demanding would engage with community members who have been victimized both by violent police profiling and by Chicago’s gun-violence epidemic. 

Any conversations about processes of accountability need to include the communities that have already been negatively impacted by the University’s policing system. The notion that making arrests and sentencing people is the only way to build public trust contradicts the numerous requests by campus and community coalitions who have voiced their lack of trust in UCPD and the University at large. 

The UCPD is Chicago’s largest private police force, and they already patrol the entirety of Hyde Park as well as portions of surrounding Southside neighborhoods such as Woodlawn and Kenwood, with an extended patrol zone spanning 37th to 64th Streets

Across Chicago, there are already an estimated 30,000 surveillance cameras connected to the command center of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Footage from existing surveillance cameras aided in locating a suspect in the murder of Zheng within three days. However, the conversation about community safety must contend with the reality that this large and well-funded police presence has not prevented harm. 

As University of Chicago students, social workers, and Hyde Park residents, we are concerned about faculty and students’ requests for additional policing and surveillance in the neighborhoods surrounding campus, for several reasons. 

First, we are concerned that faculty and students are requesting an increase in existing policing and surveillance technologies that have not effectively prevented tragedies. 

Second, given the history of UCPD’s policing tactics, we are concerned about the impact that increased surveillance and policing may have on Black and Latinx students and community members. 

Third, we are concerned with the shaky outcomes of evidence surrounding increases in surveillance and policing. It is ultimately irresponsible for faculty from an elite research university to call for interventions that place some community members at increased risk of harm without engaging with data demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the proposed strategies and engaging a larger number of community voices. 

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We are most concerned with calls to expand the power and jurisdiction of the University of Chicago Police Department and neighborhood surveillance cameras. In 2018, UCPD shot a student of color on campus, and for years, UCPD has been accused of racial profiling in their arrests and stops. 

It is notable that despite the public release of policing data and statistics from an Independent Review Committee, local residents continue to express distrust and concern about the unbridled power of the University’s police force. It also must be acknowledged that between 2005 and 2020, the vast majority of complaints submitted to the UCPD Independent Review Committee were filed by Black individuals. 

Although surveillance cameras aided in identifying a suspect in the case of Zheng’s murder, there is not substantial evidence supporting the claim that Chicago’s massive surveillance camera system has reduced violent crime. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern since 2011 about the pervasive nature of surveillance cameras in Chicago as a threat to citizens’ civil liberties, privacy, and freedom from racial discrimination.

We appreciate and wholeheartedly support the call for University of Chicago to fund the travel of Zheng’s family as they grieve, waive any outstanding tuition fees, and provide financial support for funeral and memorial service costs. We also firmly believe that the University should expand support for international students and their families before tragedies occur. With an endowment of 11.6 billion dollars, the University can afford to offer more crisis resources, legal support, transportation, and healthcare support to international students and their families. 

If the University’s goal is to prevent harm, we support creative safety interventions that build relationships and do not increase police surveillance, such as carpools, self-defense classes, and expanded shuttle programs. International students and their families should feel safe when walking around our neighborhood and campus, but we are not convinced that increased policing and surveillance will achieve that. 

Rather than establishing a committee to oversee the University’s safety goals and related policies, as the student/faculty letter demands, we encourage the University to think critically about the relationship it has fostered with community members on the South Side of Chicago. 

In response to demands for increased safety, we ask: whose safety are we speaking of? Why are we advocating for the university to put more money behind ineffective solutions, when we could be advocating for investment in the organizations such as Project Hood, Acclivus, Claretian and the many people who have a proven track record of interrupting and preventing violence? 

Rushing to an increase in surveillance methods and law enforcement presence is not a sustainable safety measure; these measures often only slap a temporary bandage on the issue and don’t get to the root causes of violence and harm in our community. In response to senseless tragedy, it’s time to think about more creative, community-oriented solutions to violence.

Rather than potentially exposing our classmates and neighbors to police violence and surveillance-driven racial profiling, we are advocating for a stop to police-driven responses to violence.

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Durrell Malik Washington Sr., Brianna Suslovic, and Samantha Guz are abolitionist social workers and PhD students at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

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