The student from Hyde Park Academy High School paused, thinking about the question posed to her:
“What if you had information that would maybe help the police? You heard that something’s brewing, something might go down. Would you reach out to the police to share that?”
“No,” she replied, “I would not give out any information.”
She was one of about 200 people at University of Chicago Law School on Friday for the first day of a two-day conference on the relationship between youth and police.
The student’s concern was that if police officers realized she had knowledge of a crime, they might then assume that she participated in the crime.
Organized by watchdog journalism group Invisible Institute and U. of C.’s police accountability clinic, the conference featured a national slate of speakers, including current and retired members of law enforcement from Chicago, New York, Denver, Tampa, Fla., and Richmond, Calif.
Also involved were college professors, high school teachers, community activists and students from Hyde Park Academy who filled two of the front rows in the auditorium and participated on the panels.
Five students in all answered the question from their seats in the audience.
One by one, each said that no, they would not call the police.
“It’s sad,” University of Chicago clinical professor and conference panelist Herschella Glenn Conyers said after the event. Fear of calling the police was a theme echoed again and again by audience members.
But, Conyers said, the question of whether or not black people call the police is not so simple.
“The prisons are full of black people from the South Side of Chicago,” said Conyers, a former Cook County assistant public defender who has run the law school’s juvenile justice clinic since 1993.
“White people didn’t call the police. They weren’t there. White people didn’t come to court and testify. They weren’t there. So there are plenty of black people calling the police and sticking with it and testifying against people. That happens.
“That said, the notion that our children feel that that’s a last resort — ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’ — is just heartbreaking.”
‘You’re not thinking about me’
When the girl from Hyde Park Academy finished speaking, a woman in the back of the auditorium’s front section boomed: “Can I weigh in on that?”
Heads turned to face Jasmine Davis, 24, who commanded the room without a microphone.
“No,” she said, “I wouldn’t answer any questions because in talking to the police, everything you say can be used against you.”
Davis knows about talking to police.
She teaches “know your rights” workshops for First Defense Legal Aid, an organization with a 24-hour hotline that provides attorneys to people immediately following their arrest to be present during their police interrogation.
She also has her own experiences, such as the time a University of Chicago police officer pulled over the car she was riding in because, she said, the driver was a black male with dreadlocks.
At the officer’s request, Davis and her friends exited and put their hands on the car. She asked if she was being detained. No, the officer said. She asked if she was free to go. No, the officer said. She asked if she could call her lawyer. Tomorrow, the officer said.
The group was eventually released without incident. But moments like that affect Davis’ perspective.
In the audience, still speaking to the crowd, Davis addressed a question posed earlier by the moderator: Would having a relationship with an officer — such as a friendly conversation — impact your decision to call or not call police?
“Of course, every police officer is not bad,” Davis told the crowd. “So if you are sitting in a room with this man or this woman and having a conversation, of course you are going to (get along).
“But when they call on that radio and say, ‘Do a sweep of that girl’s neighborhood,’ you’re going to have to still do a sweep of my neighborhood regardless of how good our interaction was.”
It is, Davis said after the event, a matter of perceived ownership.
“They tell you, ‘Go and protect your streets,’” she said. “They call my community ‘your streets.’ So when you go out there, you’re not thinking about me.”
Handcuffed to the wall
A few minutes before Davis spoke, a self-proclaimed “professional parent” told the crowd that the relationship between police and citizens was “a real conundrum.”
“In raising four children of my own, two boys and two girls, I was just as much afraid of the police as I was the gang,” said the woman, 73-year-old Barbara Keys.
“With these police encounters, on whose behalf are the police acting, when they all get together and have the same script, and the same talking points?
“They all know how to jump out of the car and put our children up against the wall. The script is repeated. Who is orchestrating this? Who is benefiting by a whole segment of our society feeling like they’ve got to lower their eyes and get off the sidewalk?”
Keys heard about the conference while listening to WVON-AM 1690. She attended because she was impressed by the list of panelists.
Like Davis, Keys also has a story.
About 15 years ago, Keys drove to the police station at 727 E. 111th St. because conversations she had in her neighborhood led to knowledge of a murder. She went to the police station as an act of citizenry, she said.
“We got to a certain point in the conversation where the police — and these were two white detectives — jumped up, grabbed me, handcuffed me to the wall and went to my house and searched my house,” she said after the conference.
She believes that the detectives thought that the suspect she was describing might have been hiding in her home. Their search — which took place while Keys’ husband was home — proved fruitless, she said.
“Police with us, they don’t come and get our cats out of the tree and be Officer Friendly,” she said. “They don’t.”
That was the last time she volunteered information to the police about a crime.
“You can see how it could have escalated into something very bad because I decided to go to the police station,” Keys said. “I’ll never go back up there again.”
‘They’ve got to do better’
Keys made another point while addressing the crowd.
Rather than simply discussing police-youth relations, she raised a broader question about academic undertakings — specifically the conference — that use black children as “guinea pigs” for research.
“I hope that you have prepared a way that maybe one day they can be students here at the law school or the university,” Keys said.
Asked later about Keys’ statement, Conyers said the point needed to be made and that Keys made it well.
She also said the relationship between university police and the public needs to improve.
“They’ve got to do better,” Conyers said. “I think the university has acknowledged it and that they are trying to deal with it.”
Conyers earned her J.D. at U. of C. in 1983. She recalls times as a law student when campus police stopped and questioned her black male colleagues who were walking to the library.
As Keys, Davis and others at the conference pointed out, the relationship between the university and the community is strained due to university policing, neighborhood real estate projects and debate over whether U. of C. Medical Center should have an adult-trauma center that would treat gunshot victims.
There’s also debate about the level of responsibility the school exercises to support nearby residents.
“And that’s the beauty of the University of Chicago Law School,” Conyers said. “We are not unaware of that tension. …
“You cannot run away from these issues. And if anybody is going to talk about them, we should be taking the lead on this.”