Anthony Beckman, the outreach coordinator for Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), recalled walking one day in the 1st District with his boss when they witnessed a man being beaten by a white police officer. The officer, when asked by Boykin and Beckman to explain his actions, insisted the man had a gun and was a felon who needed to be off the streets.
“I’m not bright, but I didn’t see any gun,” Beckman recalled, during a Feb. 27 Youth Take Chicago Forum organized by Boykin, the 15th District Chicago Police and other elected officials. The talk was the second such forum to take place in a month, with third forum planned for some time in March.
Organizers said the forums were necessary to provide a platform for young people to air testimonies similar to Beckman’s and to broadcast what many say is normal behavior among officers in places like the West and South Sides of Chicago.
“Today, there’s a behavioral problem in the Chicago Police Department and the only way to change that is to bring in new people,” said Beckman.
Eric Washington — deputy chief of community policing and former 11th District commander who, according to media reports, could be on the short list for replacing ousted CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy — called the actions of the officer in Beckman’s testimony as “excessive,” before acknowledging the “implicit and explicit biases” held among some officers.
“You can arrest a felon, but you don’t have to do all that,” Washington said. “We had officers on the job who never had a true experience being around people of color and we have to work on that. We’ve also got some black officers who’ve never been exposed to whites.”
The forum provided area youth and adults the opportunity to air their grievances to CPD leaders who might be influential enough to change departmental policies.
Nathaniel Brown, a 31-year-old career coach, said that, even though he’s a college-educated professional who has never been involved in gangs, he still has his share of horror stories relating to Chicago police.
“I’ve had more guns drawn on me by police officers than any other people,” he said. “I would like to be approached as a human being.”
One high school student in attendance recalled walking home with friends from a football game when he was stopped by a police officer, who demanded to know whether they had any drugs on them. The officer, the students said, didn’t believe them when they said they didn’t, so he searched the teenagers.
Will Martinez, a 15th District Police officer, said that, in many cases, police receive anonymous calls about people trying to sell drugs to kids, or people carrying guns, but that the tippers only give general descriptions. He said that, with those tips, officers don’t like to take any chances.
Martinez, who is white, said the interactions between police and residents are often mired in mutual distrust. He recalled an instance when he approached a group of small children only to have their parents pull them away.
“I am here because I’m out there every day and I talk to everybody,” he said. “Some people try and try until they don’t try anymore.”
But DeShaun Adams, a production manager for a youth magazine, said many officers simply don’t try hard enough, noting that too many officers are too willing to punish teens for offenses, like carrying drugs, that often stem from deeper emotional issues that shouldn’t be approached punitively.
“Taking them downtown — that’s bogus,” said Adams. “That’s not ‘Officer Friendly’ to me.”
Washington said the idea “is not to ruin anyone’s day,” before noting that residents have “got to be willing to have a conversation with me.”
Dwayne Betts, the 15th District commander, acknowledged this breakdown in trust between police and residents.
“Our biggest enemy is not the Vice Lords or Corner Hustlers — it’s losing the community trust,” he said, before noting that his officers were doing more community outreach activities like youth forums and a cooking contest that took place at Austin High School later that day.
Betts also noted that, during roll calls over the past few months, he’s urged officers not to jump to any conclusions about residents.
“Everybody that has pants sagging is not a criminal,” he said. “Everyone standing around the corner is not a criminal.”