Jacob calls me and says, “Hey, there is a special watch out, can I pick you up in five?” It is 45 minutes earlier than when we had planned to meet for a ride-along and the urgency in his voice is palpable. He pulls up to my apartment at 10pm, and I hop into the passenger seat of his roomy, rust-colored SUV. He fiddles with the vehicle’s GPS and pulls up a grid of streets from 51st and Ellis to 57th and Lake Park, an area where police have noticed a string of street robberies. “That’s a pretty big area,” he laughs, “so let me take you to the HP Knights’ favorite spots.”
Three University of Chicago undergraduates who don hoodies instead of shining armor, wield UCIDs instead of crests, and iPhones instead of lances may not be the epitome of medieval warriors, but these three students take to the streets with bravado and a passion for service. As often as four times a week, the Knights ride out from their shared south-of-the-Midway castle, following the dispatches of the University of Chicago Police Department.
As we head to the inner streets of a residential subdivision at 55th and Stony Island, Jacob adjusts the knobs on his crackling police radio. The feed is primarily silent now, though we sometimes hear a quick call from the dispatcher and brief responses from unit patrols confirming their location. In the first long patch of silence, Jacob sternly says, “I want to be clear: we are not vigilantes. We are far more interested in sharing information than in getting involved first-hand.”
Their efforts rely primarily on Twitter, where their tweets about police activity, alerts, and safety tips are delivered to more than 170 followers. “People want to hear what’s happening,” said Jacob. “We see ourselves as journalists, in a way.” Their operations began at the beginning of this academic year, when the three close friends, after days of excitedly listening to the police radio in their apartment, decided to go out on the streets themselves.
When more than one Knight is out on “patrol,” there is a designated Twitter updater, Jacob explains. Otherwise, the driver will stop at the side of the street and update. “Our Twitter is a great way to get real-time info–probably the only way–if you aren’t logged on to a computer listening to a live feed.”
As we idle on 55th Street the radio picks up a bit more, with units checking bike racks along the Midway. “You know, that’s one thing I wish the University students were more aware of. The UCPD does so much more than just ride around and break up parties. They keep an eye out for cut locks and suspicious activity around the bike racks that have had a lot of theft.” An officer radios in to the dispatcher for “a personal” stop and Jacob chuckles: “He’s probably going to the bathroom.” Throughout the night, Jacob mentions the trends he has noticed: more alerts in the 51st and Ellis to 53rd and Lake Park grid and more action in warmer temperatures. It is clear the Knights are infatuated with law enforcement, as each explanation is laced with admiration and enthusiasm.
We’re now at 62nd and Cottage Grove. Jacob points to the side of the road: “A whole car was shot out here this summer.” In the same breath, he points to the Logan Arts center. “Look at how close everything is, you can see Logan and the UC Hospital from where someone shot a gun…it’s crazy.” But the proximity between these brand new safe-spaces and gunshot violence is what drives the Knights to monitor suspicious activity when they can, or simply drive around, shining their bright headlights into Hyde Park’s many alleyways. “All this crime doesn’t mean we have to be afraid. Hyde Park crimes are very much crimes of opportunity —unlocked apartments and walking alone–being aware and safe can help a lot.”
After an hour and a half of driving by a few traffic stops, navigating several alleyways, and watching over three parks, we are ready to call it a night. Just as Jacob drives up my street to drop me off, the dispatcher calls out a “suicide and threat to others at 55th and Everett.” Jacob speeds (within the speed limit, of course) to that intersection, silently waiting for more information. The dispatcher continues, “Subject might be intoxicated and witnesses said he threatened to kill himself.”
At this moment, Jacob and I both lay eyes on the subject. There are no squad cars in sight, but the man continues to stumble and walk west on 55th in the middle of the intersection. Jacob pulls into a parking space in the intersection, turns off his headlights, cranes his neck around his seat, and says, “We’re here before the units. Where are they? I’m calling this in.” He deftly dials the UCPD number on his iPhone and speaks to the very same dispatcher we have been listening to all night. He describes the subject’s clothing and location and we hear her calling out to her units on the radio. A squad car shows up, lights and sirens blaring, heading west on 55th Street. The car, in full pursuit, makes a quick turn south on Everett. But the man just took a turn north on Lake Park.
Jacob, still on the phone with the dispatcher, quickly relays the subject’s new movements. “Wait, wait, your unit just turned south, and the subject is headed north!” Again, she relays the directions to the unit and they are able to apprehend the subject. Jacob smoothly maneuvers and drives slowly westward, away from the squad car and subject. Before we head too far away, we see two unmarked units appear with sirens and lights, ready to aid the unit already on the scene. Jacob finds a quiet spot at a safe distance from the activity to idle while we listen in on the radio. In classic HP Knights fashion, he pulls out his iPhone to tweet. We hear that the police successfully detain the man and run his identification. He is an ex-Latin Kings member on parole status, with previous charges of being armed and dangerous.
Both of us are silent, shivering with adrenaline for at least five minutes. With a slight grin, Jacob turns to me and says, “Nani… I’m addicted to this.”
The three Knights relish their rides and hope to spread the word on UCPD action, but have kept their nightly thrill-seeking in check. “We love action! That feeling when you hear the dispatcher call out an address…It’s fun for us to follow, but at the end of the night, it’s better for all of us in the community when it’s quieter on that radio.”
*Jacob asked for his last name to be omitted. The Weekly does not endorse the activities described above.