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May 16, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

How Black Chicago Youth Perceive Police

This interview is from the Youth/Police Project (Y/PP) of the investigative journalism organization Invisible Institute.

by Chaclyn Hunt

We spend years building relationships with high school students on the South Side of Chicago. The goal is to learn what discipline and policing feel like for young black people in Chicago. In order to join Y/PP, participants must commit to a minimum of five hours a week for an entire school year. This substantial investment of time leads to stable relationships with the kids, and leads to the trust necessary to kindly hold each other accountable.

In October 2018, I sat down with one of my high school students to talk.

Chaclyn: Who are you?

Keyonne: Who am I? I am Keyonne Barnes. I am a senior at a neighborhood Chicago public school located on the East Side of Chicago. But I grew up and was raised on the South Side of Chicago.

Chaclyn: What kind of feeling do you get from the police in your neighborhood?

Keyonne: I be scared. I know I shouldn’t feel like that, but I do. I be scared because the police supposed to serve and protect, but from the experience that I had with watching people encounters with the police. And me personally in an encounter with the police, instead of protecting I feel like they’re the ones to attack.

I’ve seen the police just jump out the car and push somebody up against the wall, and just start searching them for no apparent reason. I saw the police call people bad names and tell them that [there] is a very slight chance they are gonna make it in life. Just basically downgrade people.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) created an Enhanced Foot Patrol Unit, known colloquially and notoriously as the “Jump Out Boys,” in 2003 to patrol high-crime neighborhoods. The official unit, composed primarily of new Probationary Patrol Officers, was closed soon after in 2004, but a similar “jump out” initiative was renewed in 2013 under CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s Operation Impact.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published its investigation findings into the CPD stating that “jump outs” are common practice: Officers in plain clothes or unmarked cars will often drive suddenly near a group of pedestrians in a high-crime area, and then an officer is tasked to chase or “zero-in” on a fleeing person. The DOJ report states, “Some of the most problematic shootings occurred when that sole officer closed in on the subject, thus greatly increasing the risk of a serious or deadly force incident."

Chaclyn: When [police] say there’s a good chance you’re not gonna make it, that doesn’t have anything to do with crime or what policing is meant to do in society. That’s about people as human beings. Why do you think the police go that far?

Keyonne: This is society we live in, everything is based off statistics. It’s sad to say, [but] it’s kind of true now. It’s very rare a young black person, to be specific, a young black male, make it to their 18th or 21st birthday. But not everybody is like that. When you just automatically assume that because he’s African American, I just feel like it’s racist. It’s discrimination.

The Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) 2015 report on the leading causes of death in black males states that homicide accounts for 49.5 percent of deaths among black males ages 15–19, 49.7 percent among ages 20–24, and 35.5 percent among ages 25–34. Black males in these age groups are the only demographic with homicide as the leading cause of death.

Chaclyn: You get boxed in by the police, who they think you are. How does that make you feel?

Keyonne: It makes me feel less of a person. I grew up to be unique, to be different. But when I see the police, they make me think less of myself because of how they talk to us. They make me feel as if I’m just no one, I’m just like everybody else, when, in reality, I’m different. They try to put me in a category based off what other people have done in the past, just because I’m the same skin color.

Chaclyn: Do you feel the same way about the police? When you see the uniform, do you make assumptions about them?

Keyonne: No! Because I personally have experienced a good cop, and personally experienced a bad cop. I don’t just automatically assume that every cop is bad, but I have had personal experiences where the majority are. 

Now, police in my school. I feel as if it just isn’t fair. Why is there policemen only in the black community schools? I went downtown to Jones College Prep, basically a selective enrollment school that is downtown. Being in that environment, of course they don’t have to walk through metal detectors. They don’t have police officers. I feel like everything is put out for the African Americans, as if we’re just bad.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has a contract with the Chicago Police Department to provide more than 250 police officers to 75 primary and secondary schools. Officers complete no specialized training and have access to computer terminals within the school buildings to process arrested kids. Repeated public information requests for a comprehensive list of which officers are assigned to which schools have been denied because there are “no responsive documents.”
The most recent public data is from 2011, reported by WBEZ [a Chicago-based radio station], showing 3,500 misdemeanor arrests on CPS campuses. It is very difficult to access updated data; a CPD Freedom of Information Act officer told me that they report arrest rates over the phone to CPS administrative staff, leaving no written information to request.

Chaclyn: What about other forms of discipline in your school? In-school suspension?

Keyonne: Every school needs discipline, that’s just necessary. I don’t understand the suspension, amount of days, though. I understand if they fight, or do anything inappropriate, you need discipline. You have to suffer the consequences. But in my school, you can get up to two weeks for one fight! If you miss more 10 days, automatically you fail! Why set us up for that?

Chaclyn: So, if you ditch class, they take you out of class all day. In the CPS Policy Handbook, it’s called “skill-building suspension.” I wonder what skills they think the kids are building in that classroom?

Keyonne: Well in in-school, it doesn’t do anything. They just take our phones and we can’t talk to anybody. So it’s basically nothing productive being held. I once heard a boy ask the person that was watching us, can he go and get his assignments. They said no. So it’s not that we’re skill building, they’re trying to punish us.

I’ve worked with students in five low-income CPS schools. In each school, skill-building suspension is exactly what Keyonne describes. It often comes with silent cold lunches, a punishment expressly prohibited by the CPS Policy Handbook. I have also observed routine violations of CPS discipline policy, including posting students’ discipline records on the wall for the whole school to see; allowing police to interrogate students about criminal conduct without another adult present; handing out pre-filled suspension forms not detailing the student’s specific misconduct; and disciplining students without notifying guardians or allowing the student to respond to the allegations.

For more observations on students and police, see our article “They Have All the Power,” published in 2016 by the University of Chicago Law School.

Chaclyn: You’ve used a word, “citizen.” What does that mean to you?

Keyonne: You’re a basic citizen because of where you live. This is your home. But what makes you a good citizen is when you can contribute and help out the communities. Try to put a solution to the problems. A citizen by itself, it’s just a matter of living in America.

The elders, they’ve seen all this, and see a problem with it. So they take more leadership roles to change it. Young people, they don’t really see the bigger problem. They don’t focus. Young people, we just want to have fun and live life until we are actually grown. In reality, it should start at a young age. When you make it to your adult years, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t see the bigger picture because you wasn’t there at the root of the problem.

Chaclyn: How does seeing unconstitutional policing affect your feelings about being a citizen?

Keyonne: It just make me want to participate more. It make me want to stand up and help everybody else because I know that’s not right. That’s me personally, not everybody has the same mindset. Now, young men may get into their mind that every police is like that, that is the norm, the police work with the government so they have higher power. In reality, no person should be more important than another.

Chaclyn: My tax dollars, your parent’s tax dollars, are paying the police salaries. In some neighborhoods, police act constitutionally and everything is fine, no big deal. [People in those neighborhoods] don’t see the South Side police, they don’t see the unconstitutional policing. It’s hard, then, for them to ask for change. One reason we’re doing this interview is for those people to hear your perspective. What’s important for them to hear?

Keyonne: They have not see what I’ve seen. So instead of trying to tell them, I’ll try to show them. You can tell somebody anything, but that don’t mean they believe it until they see it. I have proof. So, I wouldn’t tell someone who’s never seen bad police anything, I’d actually just invite them to just show them. Come to this location and let me show you, let me prove to you that there is bad policemen out here.

Chaclyn: You know how police officers do ride-alongs? I wonder about doing ride-alongs with you guys, people come down and spend an hour. You walk them through your neighborhood, so they could get a sense of what you live every day.

Keyonne: See the difference, the proof. Yes.

This is a real invitation. Reach out: [email protected].

Chaclyn: Makes me think about body cameras—proof. If we only have reports to go on, the police fill those out themselves and can lie if they want to. Instead, we might have video. Take the video of the murder of Laquan McDonald, leading to the first on-duty officer charged with murder in 35 years. [Since the writing of this article, the officer has been convicted of murder.]

Keyonne: Body cameras are definitely necessary. It will bring out people’s true colors. Just like you said, everybody in that case lied on their paperwork, but then the video showed. Body cameras brought a positive ending. I’d rather you turn your body camera on when you’re searching my house. If anything comes up broken, it’s video footage. On the opposite side, when it come to privacy, certain people don’t want everybody to know what’s in they house. It’s still your true colors though, fair is fair. 

Though body camera footage has led to unprecedented accountability, the American Civil Liberties Union recently updated their model legislation, adding protections against surveillance in response to concerns held by civil rights attorneys across the country.

Chaclyn: Obviously there’s not one reform, but give me an example of a policy you would like to see.

Keyonne: Communication works. Not everything has to end in violence. Let’s find a solution where your gun is the very last thing that comes to your mind. That’s what I want to reform, let’s make strategies on how not to end with violence. Not to start or bring the violence to the scene. 

Keyonne told me her favorite answers, and I didn’t cut them. Our kids are co-creators in our work—they have veto power over everything we publish about them. Our project cares as much about our methods as we do about our output. In order to deeply understand unconstitutional policing, we turn to those who live each day with it. We have kids in the room while we work, often and consistently. They interrupt and argue and comment on our investigations. We love them, we take care of them, and they take care of us.

Keyonne Barnes is a senior at a neighborhood Chicago Public School. She is interested in media/broadcast technology, journalism, and law. 

Chaclyn Hunt is a civil rights attorney and codirector of the Youth/Police Project with the Invisible Institute. The other codirector is Kahari Blackburn. 

Maira Khwaja contributed to this article.