It’s a well-known area. In the fall, as the sun starts to rise, students rocking Northwestern gear walk from tailgate to tailgate. Freshmen are glued to their phones in giant packs, mapping out where the next big party is. It’s football season, and Evanston’s fifth ward, comprised of famous off-campus streets like Maple, Garnett and Simpson, is making its presence known via crushed beer cans, trap music and occasional public urination. The bass is booming. The people are vibing. The alcohol may or may not be flowing. The lights are flashing. While some things at parties may be uncertain, others are clear: for ordinary Evanston residents, this darty could be disturbing the peace. And there sometimes are consequences. The police arrive. Who’s responsible?
Weinberg senior Ben Zimmermann* and McCormick senior Alex Cohen have both had their fair share of experiences involving the police and parties. One day, as they were getting written up for another noise complaint at their off-campus house, the police officer issuing the ticket somewhat off-handedly told them they were on something called the “nuisance list.”
When Zimmerman asked how to get off the list, the police said they didn’t know. He thinks the Evanston Police issued the ticket, but isn’t completely sure because the lines between the NUPD and the EPD often blur. He also is confused with the EPD’s link to Northwestern. “Sometimes we’ll get a ticket, sometimes we’ll get a warning from the police, and even without the ticket Northwestern will find out and send us an email via student conduct,” he says. “I’m always confused about how that works.”
For NUPD Sergeant Tim Ruess, the ability to discipline students in multiple ways outside of just arresting or ticketing them is actually helpful. “We can refer them to the dean, which hopefully holds a lot of power here. Sometimes writing a ticket is just a fine, [whereas] you send them to the dean’s office, they can discipline a little more harsh,” he says. “We have those options and I think most kids know that.”
But many students do not, and feel confused when they recieve punishment. While students may know that there are two entities, many do not know the difference between them. The problem is that while the NUPD and the EPD have the same powers under Illinois law, they are subject to different requirements because one is private and one is public. Public entities like the EPD are subject to certain transparency laws that private ones like the NUPD are exempt from.
This nuisance list, Zimmermann and Cohen later found out through the Office of Student Conduct, is a list of “problem” houses that could get ticketed without warning should they cause a, well, nuisance. Cohen says there was no official notification of being placed on the nuisance list, of why they were put on it, or how to get off it.
“I don’t know the difference between the [NUPD and EPD]. I don’t know the difference in power that they have or rules that they have to follow,” Cohen says. “Any interaction with a police person in a Northwestern context I have no clue what to expect.”
According to Reuss, in the fall and late spring, a NUPD officer, along with someone from Student Conduct, goes door-to-door telling those on the nuisance list that they have been put on it. To his knowledge, this door-to-door knocking has not yet occurred this quarter. Once students are placed on the nuisance list, Reuss says, they stay there until their lease ends. However, this is not always communicated to students.
While the nuisance list consists of both Northwestern off-campus houses as well as other buildings, Northwestern students are subject to both the rules of the city and the University, which makes it confusing to determine who’s really policing them.
“I view Northwestern police, Evanston police, student conduct and the administration all as one entity with the same agenda,” Cohen says. “Which could be flawed, but they’ve given me little reason to not.”
Police, just like every public agency, are supposed to be held publicly accountable according to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA keeps public bodies accountable by ensuring citizens can stay informed through requesting public documents, allowing for transparency of these public bodies.
At first glance, the private police force of Northwestern, the NUPD, seems like a normal police department. Officers can arrest. They carry weapons. They can shoot. They can protect. They carry a special responsibility on campus to keep students and faculty safe.
“Working for a city, working for a university environment, everything is pretty much the same,” Ruess says. “We have the same authority.”
Unlike the public police, however, the NUPD is not bound to transparency laws like FOIA. The NUPD does produce the annual Clery report, which is federally mandated for universities that receive federal funding, almost all in the U.S.. The report focuses on campus crime statistics like the annual number of burglaries or liquor law violations, as well as basic security information. But the Clery report data is much less information than public police are required to report. The University police can decide what information it wants to publicly release and what information it wants to keep hidden.
“Without people’s ability to monitor government and see what they’re up to, we can’t fulfill our duty of being good citizens and making sure we have the democracy that we deserve,” says Matt Topic, a media attorney who specializes in FOIA requests and worked on the LaQuan McDonald case to make the Chicago Police Department released video of his death. “That’s not to say that there aren’t costs associated to complying with FOIA, but this is one of the most important things government has to do is remain accountable to the people.”
Still, the NUPD has gone beyond its minimum requirements. The department publishes traffic stop statistics, detailing whom they stop with reference to race and gender. “We post those statistics on our website in the interest of transparency,” says Bruce Lewis, the NUPD chief of police. “The state law requires that we do it annually, we do it quarterly. We exceed the requirements that the state mandates.” The NUPD website also includes an officer complaint form on their website and and an “Accountability and Transparency” tab that explains initiatives like body-worn cameras.
“I think we are transparent in everything,” Reuss says. “Everything you need to know about what we do or how we do it, if you go to our website, a lot of the information is on the website.” Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago clinical law professor and leader of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Clinic, notes that while they may be transparent about some information, the NUPD can still use its discretion as to what it is transparent about.
“I’d say that’s great, good for that university, they’re doing what they ought to be doing. But as a matter of policy, I don’t think that should be a matter of private choice,” Futterman says. “Along with the extraordinary powers that we give law enforcement to make arrests, to take our freedom, use force, to shoot, to kill, come those responsibilities, responsibilities to the public and to the communities that they serve.”
If you take a quick glance at the NUPD website, you’ll find the word transparent nine times, in an effort to hit home the point. The site also tells users to contact the department if they have any questions or concerns. However, Lewis declined or didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for over a month before responding. Various NUPD staff, including police officers and the deputy of police either denied or didn’t respond to interview requests. One mentioned that they were instructed to not do interviews with the media. Apart from Lewis, only Reuss, who’s been with the NUPD for 30 years, agreed to comment.
“I think we do a much better job with the community here versus what they don’t share. And that’s their business, that’s above me. I can’t control what they do and what they don’t do,” Reuss says. “[By they, I mean] other departments worldwide, other city departments, state departments, university departments. There’s a lot of things that are not shared; it’s just the way it is.”
But under the way it is, Lewis admits, the University makes the final call about releasing some information to the public – and can refuse.
“The outcome of police complaints, a person would have to request that information from the police department,” Lewis says. “That information is not posted on the website, it’s a personnel matter. We wouldn’t release the outcomes of personnel investigations unless the state’s attorney’s office would be informed and assist us in releasing that information. The [media] can made a request, and the University would consider the request.”
Questions of jurisdiction
In accordance with Illinois law, the NUPD has the same municipal powers as the Evanston police, along with co-jurisdiction with the EPD. According to Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington, Northwestern is the only Big Ten school that has co-jurisdiction with its local police forces. Jurisdiction extends north to the border of the city of Wilmette, south to Lake Street, east to Lake Michigan and west to Asbury and Green Bay Road. That said, the two departments work side-by-side on policing the area known as Beat 76; other Big Ten schools’ police need a formal request from their local police to work together.
As a result of the current co-jurisdiction rules between the Evanston and Northwestern police departments, two different polic bodies could theoretically arrest or stop a student, and they could have completely different access to information. One week, they could be arrested by EPD, a public body subject to adhering to FOIA requests. The next week, they could be arrested for committing an identical crime by the NUPD. The student’s access to the internal workings would be subject to the discretion of the department. The NUPD decides what information can be accessed, on a case-by-case basis, according to Lewis.
Although one could technically submit a FOIA request, Lewis says it is ultimately still the University’s choice about what information they release. “The University as a private entity has their obligation under the FERPA. We would review with the request within the context of those obligations and make a decision,” he says.
But, there’s a legal argument that private police should fall under the same requirements of FOIA that public bodies do, Topic says. The statute applies to the government’s various bodies, and can also apply in certain situations to its subsidiary bodies.
“I think there’s a very good argument to be made that they are required to be compliant with disclosure laws even though they are not on their face a public entity,” he says. “The fundamental question is whether private police forces are performing a governmental function, and there really isn’t any function that is more governmental than policing.”
Eddington notes that there have been positive effects from the partnership, including successfully attaining federal grants for the research and the implementation of body-worn cameras for both the EPD and the NUPD. The two departments help each other out when staffing issues occur, he says, because they can make a seamless transition between policing an area when the other department needs assistance.
The active shooter hoax in mid March, which started with an anonymous police call that there was a shooter on campus and resulted in an hour and a half campus lockdown, showed how well the two institutions can work together Eddington says. While Eddington made sure the proper streets were closed and the people of Evanston were safe, Lewis attended to campus security and getting access for both departments into the necessary buildings.
“We worked in conjunction to come to a peaceful resolution of that event,” Eddington says.
“I would describe it as an equal partnership vis a vis the campus.” Without this close partnership, Eddington says, that peaceful resolution would have been that much harder to attain quickly and efficiently.
What NU does
Even if Northwestern and its police department are more transparent than required, how does it compare to their counterparts in Evanston? And is it enough?
“Often, it’s very comforting to have an appearance of transparency but it can be very difficult to follow through on good community policing behavior,” says Karen Sheley, director of the Police Practices Project for the Illinois ACLU. “One of them is having conversations with the public about what you are doing.”
According to both Reuss and Lewis, the NUPD aims to consistently have those conversations.
“We have programs for the community to come in and to experience the police department,” Lewis says. “Whether it’s a ride-along with the police officers, or whether it’s attending an open roll call where our police officers go out into the community and conduct roll calls, briefings so that the community can have a close up view of what some of the interactions of the police department is.”
The Northwestern Police Advisory Board (PAB), chaired by Northwestern Vice President for student affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin, aims to provide a space for students and faculty to come together to discuss and review the actions of the NUPD. The board meets about two times per year and does little outside its meetings, according to Telles-Irvin.
“I don’t know if there’s power. The importance of it is to give students and others the opportunity to have a venue where there’s dialogue with the police, to raise any issues … that are of concern to the community,” Telles-Irvin says. After hearing this student feedback, Telles-Irvin says, the police then try to address any issues that arise.
Of the many different people who sit on the PAB, the students have a few permanent seats. According to former ASG VP of Student Life Vikas Kethineedi, six students were on the email list for the fall PAB meeting, though not all of them attended. One seat is filled by a member of the Associated Student Government. But because of the recent elections, the most recent PAB meeting was not attended by anyone from ASG.
Last fall, Kethineedi did attend one of these meetings. It was a typical meeting that focused mostly on police updates, he says.
“They were super receptive. They even reminded us at the end, ‘If you have any feedback or questions, don’t hesitate to call us or come to our office,’” Kethineedi says. “They’re trying to do their job the best they can. Obviously not everything is going to run smoothly. I feel like their heads are in a good place and they really want to make an impact on the Northwestern community.”
Kethineedi notes that while it was mostly the police giving updates at the meeting, the police did ask the students present for their feedback on the department’s initiatives, including the new bike program and work around mental health.
While the PAB appears to be a minimal time commitment, the NUPD’s website highlights it as one of the pillars of transparency that holds the department accountable. The website also emphasizes its publication of traffic stops and outlet for police complaints as a significant showcase of its transparency, Sheley, however, notes that there is still hidden data, which could be useful for officer training and checking for any unseen bias.
“They’re not reporting on what the outcomes of the stops are, whether or not there was a frisk, whether there was a search, the location of these events. All this information is useful for the public to better understand how police are operating and whether more training is necessary.” Given that it is more difficult to get information from private police, Sheley says that is even more important that the University police provide the full information required of public bodies under state law.
“They should be subject to the exact same requirements as public agencies,” he says. “Policing is special. Policing is different.”
For Cohen, it’s not just about the transparency, but more about who exactly the University is looking out for. He says it’s not necessarily the students.
“It’s clear that they’re about protecting their own asses and not protecting the students, which I think for me is the most frustrating thing,” he says. “I love Northwestern with all my heart, but my biggest knock to it is they care more about themselves than the students and their mental health.”
Attempts at reform
In 2015, the Illinois Senate stalled a bill that would have required all private campus police departments to disclose information required of all state law enforcement agencies. The bill stemmed from a controversy surrounding the University of Chicago’s police force, the second largest private police force in the country. When UChicago announced wider transparency rules, including the publication of all traffic stop incidents, the Senate slowed down the process and the bill never came to fruition.
“The private police forces weren’t very enthusiastic about having to be subject to any disclosure laws, and pro-transparency people weren’t pleased because there were all types of carve outs and exceptions and very watered down,” Topic says. “There wasn’t a lot of support for it on either side.”
Texas, which had a similar bill go through their state House and Senate, passed a bill requiring more transparency in private police forces unanimously in 2015. Illinois and Texas are unique, among other states, in the powers they confer to university police. According to Futterman, most campus security forces do not fully have those special powers.
The University would comply with the bill should it become law, Lewis says, but until that happens they are under no obligation to. While Reuss notes that the reasons for the bill not passing are above him, he doesn’t fundamentally disagree with what it was aiming to achieve.
“I think we all should be treated the same. You’re the police, doesn’t matter where you work,” he says. “Our goal is pretty much to make sure the community is safe. That’s our number one goal. So based on that alone, I think everybody should be treated equally when it comes to the police, and transparency should be pretty much the same straight across the board.”
Again, public police are subject to stringent transparency measures. Specifically, they must publish traffic stop reports, outcomes of complaints against police officers, crime statistics and provide any related records to investigations and complaints. Beside private information regarding identifying information of private individuals, such as social security numbers or mental health records, many police reports and documents of police activity in general are public and can be attained by regular citizens via a FOIA request.
“Police transparency is the bedrock of insurance trust between the community and the police,” Sheley says. “Given the amount of power we turn over to police officers, it’s incredibly important for them to share information about their practices, what they’re actually doing and who they’re doing it to.”
Sheley notes that police often have implicit (not plainly expressed, though still present) or even explicit (clearly expressed) biases, and if they are not held accountable for these biases, the public will suffer. Futterman points to the special powers America gives its police to show why public oversight of the police is crucial to upholding democracy.
“There aren’t other groups of public or private workers that have those extraordinary authorities and responsibilities that we give police officers and need to give police officers,” Futterman says. “So that makes police special and if you have those extraordinary powers and state powers, along with them come accountability and responsibility to the public.”
Those powers impact the way the Evanston Police Department operates on a daily basis. According to Eddington, the EPD dealt with 69,000 CAT events – jobs that they do or tasks that they are assigned – last year alone, averaging almost 200 a day. With all those different tasks and responsibilities comes much work to stay transparent, Eddington says.
“We handle a lot of FOIA requests. As a public body, by law we have to be more open to that scrutiny,” Eddington says. “For the EPD, there is a series of policies and procedures [overseen] by the Illinois Attorney General’s office that dictates what we have to respond to.”
According to Eddington, the sheer number of FOIA requests, forms and records the EPD has to keep up with can be tedious. It can also cost the taxpayers by having to add more employees to go through all these requests, some of which he says are irrelevant and useless to the public.
“I think the transparency issue needs to be seriously reviewed. There’s some things that we’re going to have to release, that we should release, that needs to be in the public discussion,” Eddington says. “I just think we need to step back for a minute and decide how to go about that, because I think we have kind of wandered off into an area where the burden on public agencies to respond to FOIA requests is significant.”
Eddington argues that private companies do not use FOIA as it is intended, instead using it as a research tool. Insurance companies, for example, make FOIA requests about one specific type of accident every month in bulk. This lets them get ahead using public dollars, according to Eddington. But, there is a statute in the FOIA law to prevent just that, Topic says.
Futterman sees it similarly to Topic, noting the accessible use of technology as a primary vehicle through which public bodies can distribute information.
“With respect to government, it’s pretty easy in the age of information and data that good government is generally open and transparent and honest government,” he says. “Police departments in particular, how you build trust and become more effective in addressing crime is by being honest with people, by sharing information, by not hiding, by not denying, by not covering up.”
Transparency holds the police accountable and facilitates a mutual trust between the police and the people, Futterman says. This accountability leads to better practice and safety, something which he says should be applied to both private and public policing bodies. In terms of transparency, Reuss agrees.
“I think everything should be the same,” Reuss says. “I go to the same police academy, same education, wear the same uniform, same equipment, same car, same facility in a different manner. We’re all pretty much one big happy family.” The Evanston police chief, on the other hand, thinks that Lewis should be wary of further transparency demands.
“I, as someone who is subject to all that, would advise individuals like Chief Lewis to continue to maintain [their] different status only because if you come to the status I’m in, you’re going to have to hire more people to fulfil those requests,” Eddington says. “I think that just in it of itself is significant. How much information do we need to pump out to be transparent? What are the controls on the demands that are being placed against the public body? I think the public gets the information it needs to participate in democracy, and I’m not sure that it needs to be expanded.”
Today, NUPD is shielded from scrutiny, but Sheley says students can make a difference in altering this reality.
“Students are powerful. They have a voice,” Sheley says. “Student activism has always had a huge role in changing the ways universities engage in all kinds of behavior. Students should definitely feel empowered to ask questions to ask for changes and ask for more transparency.”
Topic adds that students have always been at the forefront of change in this country.
“Do the things that you do when you believe that powerful institutions are not acting the way that they ought to be. It is essentially a civil rights issue, that matters,” he says. “That’s something that universities probably care about because they want to keep recruiting new students. So calling attention to it, making a big deal about it… are ways to go about changing how the university behaves.”
According to Futterman, the information one has access to shouldn’t depend on the luck of the policing draw. Rather, it is something that is necessary to the great deal of power police have, regardless of private or public entity.
“It shouldn’t be a matter of discretion or choice,” he says, reiterating, “It shouldn’t be a matter of private discretion.”
Topic goes one step further, saying that better transparency does more than just let the public know what is going on.
“You shouldn’t hide behind their status as a private university or hide behind any exemptions to releasing the documents, you should get that out there,” says Topic. “I think smart and progressive police chiefs around the country are recognizing that they can do a lot to improve community relations by releasing information quickly.”
*Editor's note: Ben Zimmerman has previously contributed to NBN.