Chicago Police officers walk by a squad car near Harper Avenue and 53rd Street in Hyde Park on Nov. 10, 2021, a day after a midday shooting occurred at the corner. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

HYDE PARK — City and University of Chicago officials say they’re increasing policing around the Hyde Park campus after a student was killed in a robbery, a man was fatally stabbed and there was daytime gunfire in the neighborhood’s commercial center earlier this month.

But as officials promise a longer-term strategy to keep people safe, not everyone agrees more policing is the answer, leading to tense discussions between neighbors, students and faculty members.

Shaoxiong Zheng, a 24-year-old native of China’s Sichuan Province who received his master’s degree in statistics in June, was killed in a robbery Nov. 9.

That same day, a 31-year-old man was fatally stabbed in a domestic violence incident, according to police, while lunch-hour gunfire erupted on a bustling 53rd Street, leaving people jumping for cover and causing the area’s Kilwins location to close through the end of the year.

Several hundred faculty members signed an open letter to UChicago President Paul Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee Lee as of Monday morning. They want “dramatically” increased surveillance, private security patrols at every road crossing in Hyde Park and the installation of shuttle stops within two blocks of every “major” off-campus apartment building.

From left: University of Chicago president Paul Alivisatos, university vice president of safety Eric Heath, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown and university vice president of communications Paul Rand participate in a panel discussion on safety Nov. 17. The discussion was organized in response to a series of violent incidents in Hyde Park Nov. 9. Credit: University of Chicago

In response, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown said the department has added six more officers to the 2nd District, which includes Hyde Park, with plans to add up to 20 more as new recruits finish training. More officers will patrol during class hours and business hours, Brown said.

Chicago police will share more information with the university’s private police force in an “enhanced partnership,” Alivisatos said.

“The more we can have a larger presence … [it] will add to not only the safety, but also to your perceptions that you’re safe,” Brown said at a Nov. 17 safety meeting hosted by the university. “We know that’s important for you to see us more.”

Brown said part of their increased patrolling will mean issuing more tickets for traffic violations in an effort to stop violent “offenders.”

“Offenders are always doing something to break the law — they just are,” Brown said without citing any evidence. The safety plan is “a red flag to anyone who’s just a reckless driver … in and around the University of Chicago, you’re likely to get stopped,” he said.

That tactic is controversial, and critics say it isn’t effective for crime prevention. A Block Club analysis of West Side traffic stops showed very few lead to tickets, raising suspicions about the actual rationale for stopping drivers in predominately Black neighborhoods. Asked about that, Brown denied West Siders were being targeted but said there is more traffic enforcement because residents have asked for more police activity to stop violence.

UChicago police also will roll out a “strategic operations center” in the coming months, said Eric Heath, vice president for safety. Officers will monitor surveillance cameras and work to improve emergency notifications to the community through the center, he said.

Others say officials are taking too narrow a view of public safety. With two police departments having jurisdiction in Hyde Park, it’s “already one of the most policed neighborhoods in Chicago,” said Grace Pai, executive director of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“Increasing policing and surveillance will not deter future gun violence, because policing and surveillance do not address the root causes of violence,” Pai said.

A Chicago Police squad car sits near Harper Avenue and 53rd Street in Hyde Park on Nov. 10, 2021, a day after a midday shooting occurred at the corner. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

A Campus On Edge

Zheng’s murder shook a campus still grieving over two other students who were fatally shot this year. Yiran Fan, a 30-year-old doctoral student, was killed in Kenwood during a man’s violent, citywide spree in January. Max Lewis, a 20-year-old junior, was shot and killed on a Green Line train at the 51st Street stop near Washington Park.

Police have not said there is any indication Zheng and Fan, both from China, were targeted because of their ethnicity. Their murders and other violent crime, reaching record levels, have made many in the UChicago community feel unsafe.

“The repeated gun violence on and around campus has started to affect our students’ willingness to go to classes in-person,” the open letter reads. “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.”

The university shares “the concerns and the goals outlined in the letter,” as “the problem of violence in our city has reached the level of a public health crisis,” Alivisatos and Lee wrote in response.

Since the shootings, the university has hosted a webinar and a public safety seminar to discuss the issue. Officials took no questions from the public at the webinar. Specific questions were submitted ahead of the safety meeting, where they were aggregated and presented by a university representative.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice executive director Grace Pai speaks at a Nov. 21 press conference. In her remarks, Pai denounced the city and UChicago’s push for more policing and surveillance in response to Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng’s killing. Credit: Facebook

Jackson Overton-Clark, co-president of the university’s Organization of Black Students, said the conversation about safety has devolved into racist rhetoric online. His group has received racist emails, including one painting Black people as violent criminals. He’s also seen online forums like the UChicago Secrets Facebook page — typically a “wholesome place” for “silly questions that [students] are too afraid to ask in-person” — devolve into anonymous hate speech, he said.

“No conversations on safety can be had at all when there’s so much anti-Black rhetoric being spewed,” Overton-Clark said.

The Organization of Black Students’ board has about 15 members and doesn’t claim to represent “all Black people on this campus,” Overton-Clark said. The group’s statement on recent violence doesn’t call for a specific public safety response, but instead attempts to set ground rules for productive conversations about safety, he said.

On a personal level, Overton-Clark said he struggles with the university and community’s “inconsistency” in responding to violence.

When 15-year-old Simeon High School student Kentrell McNeal was killed about a mile from campus in September, “I didn’t hear anything from the university or anything from the students,” Overton-Clark said.

Yet when violence claims the lives of university affiliates, “It’s kind of like, ‘Now it’s more important,'” he said.

At a We Want Safety rally Nov. 16, organized under the slogan, “We are here to learn, not die,” leaders demanded real-time crime alerts from the university, annual safety and security training, expanded shuttles, increased access to free Lyft rides and life insurance options for all university members.

Rally organizers condemned racist acts and denounced those who used the neighborhood’s anger and sorrow “to advance their own political agenda.”

Graduate student Henry Cheng was among those at the rally advocating for alternatives to policing, according to the Chicago Maroon. The safety of UChicago students and staff shouldn’t come “at the expense of subjecting Black people in our neighborhoods to greater over-policing and police brutality,” Cheng said in a statement.

“We cannot construct our perceived safety based on the harm of other communities,” Cheng wrote. The killings of Zheng, Fan and Lewis “are a loss for the entire university, Hyde Park and Chicago community. It is important that voices from all groups affected, especially those vulnerable to police brutality and excessive law enforcement, be heard in the discussion … .”

The university said it would not tolerate threats, intimidation or harassment and is “committed” to prevent such behavior, UChicago spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan said.

The campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Regardless of their thoughts on the short-term safety plan, university affiliates have largely agreed on one point: Residents who live in Hyde Park, Woodlawn and nearby communities without ties to the university must have a say in safety discussions.

University officials must “engage with the South Side community to come up with a long-term plan to tackle violence,” faculty wrote in their letter calling for more surveillance and security.

“We must come together to fight for solutions that tackle the root causes of gun violence,” Pai said.

Those who “are not willing to engage in actual dialogue” with community residents about their violence prevention ideas and socioeconomic needs are “at least partially responsible” for continued violence in Hyde Park, Overton-Clark said.

University leaders vowed to give residents a voice in developing the short-term plan and to hold events in the near future which will address public safety beyond policing.

The university is “part of this city; we’re not separate from it,” Alivisatos said. “We will take many measures to ensure safety, but also I want people to know that we will be strong partners with our neighbors.”

A long-term safety plan is still in the works, with no timeframe for its release.

Residents have suggested drones, a network of high-definition cameras, the conversion of 53rd Street into a pedestrian-only street and “a fleet of mobile police and mental health tactical deployment vehicles” among their long-term safety priorities, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said.

“We’ve got to look at the burgeoning tech community,” Hairston said. “It is about safety, but it’s also about partnering with not just the [University of Chicago,] but maybe even the City Colleges. It’s about making sure we get people plugged in [from] every aspect of the community.”

Hairston, Ald. Sophia King (4th), Brown and Heath will appear at a safety town hall 6 p.m. Wednesday.

To register for Wednesday’s town hall, click here. To submit questions in advance, click here.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Ald. Sophia King (4th) connect near Harper Avenue and 53rd Street in Hyde Park on Nov. 10, 2021, a day after a midday shooting occurred at the corner. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

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