Waking up early on a Saturday morning can be a struggle, but that didn’t stop a group of young people on Chicago’s West Side from joining Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, other city leaders and Chicago police officers in a discussion about bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community.
Joined by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, Ald. Chris Taliaferro and state Rep. Camille Lilly, Boykin asked the high school students to share their feelings about Chicago police officers and whether they trusted the officers in their community.
There was some nervous tension in the quiet room as the younth were encouraged to speak their minds.
“We scared of ya’ll,” one teenager said.
Similar comments echoed around the room. A few boys shared an instance when they felt an officer mistreated them.
The general consensus of the group of majority black students boiled down to: Chicago police abuse their power and treat black people, especially young black males, unfairly.
The officers in attendance were able to respond and expressed their own apprehensions when it comes to working in the communities they serve.
“Our biggest threat is losing community trust,” said 15th District Commander Dwayne Betts.
A beat officer explained his struggle to build relationships, saying parents yank their children away from him. Parents who teach their children to fear officers establish a barrier to the trust some officers are trying to build, he said, and it’s something that has to stop, another officer chimed in.
“If we are going to talk about working together, we have to do things together before we start actually trusting each other again,” Betts said. “And trust is the biggest thing we’ve got to get over.”
Even as officers present at Saturday’s meeting explained how they personally try to keep the peace, a teenage girl pointed out the fact that the officers she thinks need to attend meetings like this – white officers – weren’t present.
“If the force is really serious about bridging the gap between the community and police officers, then you guys need to initiate some of those white officers and make sure that they come out to these things,” she said.
The racial divide between white officers and black communities has been an issue for a long time. To change negative perceptions of black people in the eyes of officers, more people of color must be represented on the force, Betts said.
“We want to have more people that look like me and you on the job,” he said.
After the meeting, Betts explained why he and his officers attended. Many of his officers came without being asked, he said, and they are serious about having better connections with their communities.
“I think its important that my officers realize that the community has expectations and that we can meet those expectations, we just have to get in touch with the community,” Betts said.
Saturday’s discussion was followed by pizza and a basketball game between the youth and the community leaders. Sometimes building community is as easy as establishing common ground over food and fun.
“We want to break down the walls that exist between the police and the community, and we want to build bridges of trust,” Boykin said.