UP arrest story still incomplete

Scott Gordon

University Police has reassured students and faculty that officers followed procedure when they detained an innocent black Feinberg School of Medicine student in December. But UP hasn’t resolved the discrepancies between its story and the student’s.

The student said he was arrested because he was black. UP has a right and an obligation to answer the student’s claims by allowing greater access to its reports and records.

For all the law cares, this case is dead — the remaining questions need not be answered. Internal reviews by UP and Northwestern’s Human Resources department concluded the officers acted properly and on “reasonable suspicion.”

An officer stopped the man Dec. 15 on suspicion that he trespassed or stole a computer — a real possibility at 5 a.m. on an open Chicago Campus.

The student, who doesn’t want his name printed, said an officer stopped him, handcuffed him and even threatened to mace him without provocation. He said he was never read his Miranda rights and wasn’t told why he was stopped until he was taken to UP’s Chicago station.

I e-mailed UP Chief Bruce Lewis on Monday morning and informally asked him to show me documents from UP’s internal review of the incident. As of Tuesday night, he hasn’t responded and I likely won’t get the documents. UP does not allow reporters to see digital or paper copies of even the blandest police reports — most of which, under both federal and state Freedom of Information laws, all citizens have a right to view. Instead, selected UP officers read us the reports over the phone.

Since December Lewis has met at least twice with student groups on the Chicago Campus.

“I am confident … we will restore any lost confidence in the objectivity of the police department,” he told The Daily last week.

It’s reassuring to know he thinks carefully about his department. He hasn’t ignored this controversy.

Lewis says the only fault here lies with a computer system — the online directory couldn’t confirm whether the student was a student.

UP uses the same directory system, LDAP — formerly “Ph” — which students use and know to be screwy.

When Lewis told me this, I asked, that’s it? He replied, “Do you have anything else?”

Every Daily reporter knows the directory is neither complete nor reliable — names get misspelled, people don’t update their phone numbers and addresses, people can remove themselves from the system altogether. How can this data form even part of the basis for handcuffing a man?

“It hasn’t changed my feelings toward the police,” the student told me last week. “I hold no malicious feelings … I just want a wrong to be corrected.”

My own worry is that officers can abuse their discretion and remain safely within legal limits. If there was any abuse here, it was perpetrated respectably and, legally speaking, was no abuse at all.

Recently, an officer tailed me for about a half-mile under the mistaken impression (or outright lie) that I ran a stop sign. It was no use explaining that I had stopped, then pulled out halfway to get a better look at oncoming traffic before turning left –“Bottom line is, you blew the stop sign!” he insisted. He ran a check on my license plate number and warned me. Filing a complaint would have been useless. He may well have been within his rights to act like a rude thug.

Our Constitution forbids unreasonable search and seizure, but it cannot protect us from the immediate humiliation, intrusion and insult of capricious policing. Only police departments and individual officers can ensure that citizens’ rights are respected. If they want the public to believe that’s happening, they must open themselves to thorough scrutiny.

City Editor Scott Gordon is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]