So it has come to this.
Students from six public high schools in Thornton Township gathered Wednesday for a joint assembly on how to more safely interact with law enforcement.
You know, to keep from getting killed by a police officer.
A new era, a new problem, a familiar slogan.
“The life that you save may be your own,” said Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli during a passionate speech that got the students’ attention, for a while.
In fact, much about the assembly held at South Suburban College in South Holland would be familiar to those who experienced earlier versions of the genre.
There was the earnestness from the podium mixed with a bit of swearing to “keep it real,” occasional wisecracks from the audience, admonitions in response that “this is serious,” and a general malaise from hungry students as the event dragged past lunch into its third hour.
And also maybe a message getting through — in this case that police-public contact can cause anxiety on both sides of the equation and that mutual respect goes a long way toward defusing tense situations.
“Informative,” many students declared afterward, although they had some trouble pinpointing for me what it was they found informative.
In my day, the corollary school assembly was the fire marshal invoking safety warnings based on the Our Lady of the Angels School fire. For others, it was a visit from Officer Friendly.
Later generations experienced the drunk driving assembly as society sought to deal with teen drinking hazards, or, of course, the Say No to Drugs show.
How quaint by comparison.
“We cannot gun down police officers, and we cannot allow police officers to gun down members of the community,” said Pastor Troy O’Quin, who runs the township’s general assistance program, shortly after observing a moment of silence to open the conference.
South Holland Police Chief Greg Baker, who helped organize the event through the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said the problems facing young people today have “evolved” far beyond those assembly topics of yesteryear.
Baker said police need to improve their communication with young people in their communities.
“Our senior citizens love us, but our young people don’t understand us,” he said. “We have to get that relationship back.”
Thornton Township has experienced 22 murders so far this year, officials said, the more commonplace violence having nothing to do with police shootings.
Cook County Criminal Court Judge William Hooks told students he’s seen more photos of dead bodies sitting on the bench than he did during 20 years in the Marines.
“I can show you some photos that will make you vomit,” said Hooks, who actually provided the uplifting portion of the program as he challenged students to “declare” their career goals.
The centerpiece of the assembly was a pair of role-playing skits organized by a group of Chicago police officers in which students acted out what can go wrong in a traffic stop and a street stop.
It was a great idea. Unfortunately, with only a few of the students miked, and a lot of predictable giggling from the participants, it was difficult to follow or to take seriously.
Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell Davis III offered the most concrete advice to students about how to deal with an abusive police officer.
Don’t get out the cell phone and start recording, Davis said, not trying to square his advice with recent cases in which video evidence has forced a public reassessment of such incidents.
Take mental notes instead, he advised. Look for the officer’s name tag. But most of all, don’t try to “hold court” on the street.
Don’t test them. Live to fight another day,” Davis said.
The safety message for a new generation.