University hosts Youth/Police Conference

“When I call what’s going to come? A good cop or a bad cop? Are they going to be effective, do their job…or criminalize and penalize me before even knowing me?”

By Lorentz Hansen

The University of Chicago Law School held the Youth/Police Conference last Friday and Saturday, during which professors, journalists, activists, police officials, and community members convened to discuss the fractured relationship between police and youth of color in the U.S. and potential ways to mend it.

Sponsored by the Law School, Urban Network, and Office of Civic Engagement, the conference arose from collaborative efforts by the Invisible Institute and the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic to encourage discussion among Chicago-area youth about their interactions and relationships with police officers and make their stories heard.

The conference, moderated by Institute of Politics Executive Director Steve Edwards and Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, dedicated the first day to youth perspectives and the second day to police, scholarly, and legal perspectives. Both days alternated between panel sessions and questions from community members.

In light of ongoing clashes between police and residents in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, the panelists reiterated that they wanted to encourage discourse in other cities as well. Community members present at the conference also repeatedly stressed the importance of these discussions between the University and local residents given accusations of racial profiling and unfair policing practices by the University of Chicago Police Department. 

The conference began with a video made by the Invisible Institute and Mandel Legal Aid Clinic in which students at nearby Hyde Park Academy described their interactions with police officers. One student responded, “When I call what’s going to come? A good cop or a bad cop? Are they going to be effective, do their job…or criminalize and penalize me before even knowing me?”

During the second day of the conference, participants focused on the larger implications of this broken police-youth relationship. Marq Claxton, director of public relations and political affairs for the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, said, “part of what needs to be done, is for us to stop…as police, being defensive, and acknowledge that there are some huge, systemic, engrained problems within the profession, that there have been a decrease in professional standards.”

In the subsequent panel, Chris King, managing editor of the St. Louis American, said, “everyone [in Ferguson] would say…police officers protect themselves first and they protect their fellow officers second, and the community…is third.”

Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, described the consequences of this police mentality on their constituents. Speaking about frequent police stops of youth of color, he said they send “an unmistakable message…that we think you’re a criminal.”

Beyond breeding mistrust between law enforcement officials and young residents, police interactions with adolescents of color have much broader repercussions. Political science professor Cathy Cohen said that these interactions cause teenagers to shy from their communities. “However, in a supposed democracy, the way in which you get your rights is…to make claim to them, and the way you make claim to them is in fact to be visible,” she said. “So if in fact I’m invisible, I’m already kind of a secondary citizen if I’m a citizen at all.”

The conference concluded with a session titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which audience members were invited to share their thoughts about possible solutions. This community involvement, Edwards said, is “a pivotal part of the conversation,” and he encouraged community members to continue to think about and take action to address these issues even after the conference ended.