Walk the Line: University of Chicago Police Chief Rudy Nimocks patrols the boundary between the school and the neighborhood–and he has seen both sides

In Rudy Nimocks’s office, there is a wooden clock centered on the back wall. A five-pointed police star with the seal of the city appears on the face. Around the star, numbers are engraved: 1989, 93, 1956, 272, 503, 1967 and 11727. These numbers are milestones in Nimock’s career, in his words, of “playing cops and robbers in Chicago for nearly half a century.” In 1956, Nimocks became an officer in the Chicago Police Department (CPD). In District 503, he got his first star as a lieutenant. In District 93, he made the rank of captain. In 1989, he retired from the CPD. He came to the University of Chicago shortly after, saying, “I left the [CPD] on Friday and came here on Monday. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve been here nearly nineteen years.”

He is now the Chief of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD). The UCPD is comprised of 140 officers with full police powers; it commands a sizeable budget and continues to protect the academically focused culture of the University. A resident of Woodlawn for over fifty years, Nimocks has a dual citizenship in the often separated communities of the University and its surrounding neighborhoods. He is a longtime community advocate and continues to work with a multitude of organizations. Simultaneously, he heads the UCPD, an organization that has historically parted ways with the neighborhood–one that has shaped the formidable bubble and buffer around the main Quads. He plays these roles well and has brought about a community-oriented police department.

Nimock became a Woodlawn resident in 1952. He is able to recall how the neighborhood entered hard times. “When we first moved in, it was a very stable neighborhood, a very desirable neighborhood to live in.” This started to change in the 1960s, in his opinion, due to a diverse set of factors but primarily because of the social unrest of the times. He explains that “as a consequence, the attitude toward authority started to change. When I first became a police officer, we had walking posts all over the place–the Chicago Police had a lot of officers on foot. Generally, policemen didn’t fear getting ganged up on by thugs in the street and so forth. In other words, there was a lot of respect for authority. But that now has disappeared. There’s a lot of places in Chicago when you wouldn’t think of putting a lone policeman on foot. You just wouldn’t do that.”

However, he pointed out that the same social unrest led to new roles for individuals in society. He adds, “Social change brought on a lot of thinking, new thinking about who you were and what you were supposed to do.” He continues, “And that way, it was a change for the better. I think it became a more democratic process….People began to ask more questions and get more involved.”

He spoke briefly about his experience with gangs in his community. “In Woodlawn specifically, another change was the proliferation of the gangs in the 1960s, especially with the Blackstone Rangers.” He recalled that riots and other manifestations of social unrest didn’t come to Woodlawn because of the Blackstone Rangers, who “were strong enough to keep control.” Additionally, he recalled when the “neighborhood went to the dogs” because of the proliferation of narcotics and the contemporaneous increase in crime.

Nimocks is not only a resident, but a social worker. He singled out his work with Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation (WPIC), a community organization originally formed to prevent the systematic removal of poorer residents. “I was one of the original members of WPIC, and became a board member, when I was still in the police department in 1988. I started off as one of the board members and I’m still on the board.” The group saved Grove Parc, a unit of subsidized housing between 60th and 62nd on Cottage Grove. They acquired Grove Parc for one dollar, under the premise that “We would try to keep it up, keep it going. Keep the inhabitants with decent housing.” Unfortunately, like many projects in the South Side, it was undefended and faced a series of complex social problems. Nimocks explained, “After eighteen years, with the income that’s derived from HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ]… it was too many people in unfortunate social circumstances packed together, and that breeds crime. So, for the same reason, Grove Parc got to be unmanageable–the lack of money, the enormous amount of money that was being spent on security. Up to $600,000 just on security for that complex, and when you looked at those numbers, it became impossible.”

He began his career in the CPD in Hyde Park as a Park District Police officer: “The first police station I worked in is now called the DuSable Museum.” In 1961, he became a detective, and worked in homicide. “I did everything there was to do in the homicide section of the Chicago Police Department–I was [a] detective, I was a sergeant, I was a lieutenant. I was the first, and only, black citywide commander in the homicide section. Then, when I made captain, I went to the Wentworth Avenue District, which is at 51st and Wentworth. After that, I became commander of the homicide section.” Next, he was promoted to the Chief of Organized Crime. He was the first African-American to hold the position. He later became deputy of administrative services, which was “another first, for blacks.” He pauses for a moment. “Back in those days, it was very unusual. There were some jobs you didn’t see black people in, but over time, it started to change. I’m very proud of the fact that I was on the cutting edge of that change, you know? And finally, I became deputy superintendent for investigative services. And then, in 1989, I retired.”

It is obvious that Nimocks understands the two communities he straddles: the expectations of the University and its ever-evolving relationship to the neighborhood. As a result, he has developed a “community-conscious” police force. Although he eschews credit for it, he points out that the University was one of the first schools to focus on the community. “We hire a lot of police offices who work in this district. This is where they work during the day, and that’s one of the reasons why we hire them.” He marks the connections between the CPD and the UCPD: the combination of resources, the relationships Nimocks himself has formed, and the sharing of information between both departments. “I talk to the district commander here nearly every day, sometimes three or four times a day.” He adds with a chuckle, “When I left the police department, it was like I was just going to another station.”

“I think the realization has now come about where these large universities in metropolitan areas feel they have an obligation, and have a selfish interest in the trying to make the continuous neighborhoods close to them as attractive as possible. That’s where the University really comes in.” He notes that the UCPD had expanded coverage twice, which he states was in “recognition of that premise: That the University can make a meaningful contribution to the quality of life to the continuous communities next to them. That’s the whole idea.” He expands on this, discussing the role of charter schools, student activism in the local community, and ultimately the UCPD contributing to the safety of the residents. It should be noted that Hyde Park is not only one of the safest neighborhoods on the South Side, but in all of Chicago as well. “We had people come looking at us in the early ‘90s. Nobody was talking [about the community], until we did.” When pressed about the role that the UCPD has historically played in the community, he responds coolly, “Here’s the premise that you’re trying to get at, and that is, the University Police Department is part of, rather than apart from these continuous communities. When we operate outside the immediate University area, we feel that we are a part of that community. We want to be a part of these communities as much as possible. Every person in the community has a function, and our major function is public safety, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do other things. Anything that is not completely off the page, that we could possibly do to enhance the quality of life in these communities, we do it.”

He expands on this: “When I started out as a police officer…The police was the police. We didn’t go to community meetings. You’d never see a patrolman at a community meeting.” He clarified, “We don’t do social work. But see, that’s starting to change.”

When asked about why the University has been unable to shake a reputation of being located in an unsafe community, despite the consistent single-digit crime figures, he pauses for a moment, and presents the two dominant ways of thinking: “You know, some people say, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else [besides Hyde Park]. You know, this is Chicago! We got crime, so what? That’s one attitude. The other attitude is, I’m afraid to go out at night.” He seemed both frustrated and sympathetic with the situation. He adds that the University has always tried to shake that reputation, saying, “We’ve done everything we can to diminish that feeling [of lacking security]. Putting numbers out there, making neighborhood comparisons. You name it, we’ve done it.”

I brought up the Cisse murder and asked him to comment on a quote from the Maroon Editorial Board that argued that the University Police should have been near the incident (as it occurred close to the new dorm construction on campus). The editorial went on to raise other security-related concerns. He derides the quote as an oversimplification: “People are gonna say things like that. You can’t anticipate every single thing. You can’t have a police officer on every single block. You have people who are sometimes victimized, and we got an officer half a block away, and that’s just the reality. You do everything you can to prevent that from happening.” He adds the police are conducting a systematic investigation of the situation to remedy any possible missteps.

He went on to discuss the culture that breeds the violence like the Cisse killing. The individuals charged with murder in the Cisse killing are young men. “In some of these poor neighborhoods, you got a kid whose father’s in jail and his mother’s in jail, an addict, and all of that. And all he hears about who got shot, who got cut, you know, from the time that they’re this high,” he gestures with his hand about four feet off the ground. “Well, it’s not very difficult for them to go out and commit a violent crime, is it? So, those are some underlying things that people really don’t seem to pay that much attention to. He adds, “To me, it’s very depressing, and it’s not getting any better, it’s getting worse,” He seemed frustrated at the obviousness of the situation. Finally, he points out the consistent pattern of violence among young people, saying with a dark laugh, “Is everybody going crazy at the same time? I mean, there’s something in the air. There has to be an underlying motive. There has to be reason for it.” In short, the breadth of experience in Nimocks’s career prevents him from giving simple answers. His understanding is too complex, too nuanced.

As he guides me out the door, he has another comment. Despite his concerns about the world around him, he emphasizes again the change occurring. He smiles wide and says, “And now we’re talking about a black president, not just a [police] commander. I’m just glad I’m around for it.”

Photo by Bobby Zacharias