As a Chicago teenager being held in juvenile detention summed up his interaction with police, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon and Mike Anderson, the FBI’s top man in Chicago, listened.
“They just see us with our pants hanging, looking like thugs, but actually that’s a style,” the 17-year-old told a panel of experts Thursday who’d gathered at the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for a summit on the city’s violence problem.
“Their first impression is when they stop and see us, they instigate the talking trash to us,” said the boy, Nigel, who, because he’s a minor, did not share his full named or what landed him in the detention center.
“And I’m like, ‘Why is that your first instinct when you all see us? Why don’t you all say ‘Hello. How you all doing? Is you all safe out here?’ They don’t ask those questions. They just look at us like thugs.”
Fardon said trust is at the heart of the issue.
“We have to restore faith and credibility in law enforcement. I think that has begun,” he said, noting that the Department of Justice report outlining police department failures was “a seminal event and forward progress for that.”
“But it’s going to take time and sustained leadership,” Fardon continued, adding that those in the criminal justice system — himself included — have to do a better job of “keeping off the street the right people, the real trigger pullers and shot callers.”
“Chicago has an entrenched gang and gun violence problem in a limited number of neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods there is a sense of hopelessness, a belief cemented early in life that they’re not worthy of higher education and will not be able to find good work. Gangs and guns are ubiquitous. They’re everywhere. And gangs fill the vacuum of that hopelessness,” he said.
Anderson said the FBI has to work on community outreach through overt operations “instead of covert investigations where no one knows what the FBI is doing for three years and then boom, we’re indicting 30 people.”
Tim Evans, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, commended the 10 teenagers who chose to address the roomful of adults.
“What we’re trying to do is put a face on this issue of violence so the public can see that these young people are not people simply to be thrown away. They’re our kids,” Evans said.
Nigel suggested opening a rehab center for gangbangers that would expand their world view.
“Take them on trips somewhere outside of Chicago, show them that there’s more than just the corner,” he said.
A girl named Katrina suggested more access to sports programs. “Sometimes sports is a way people get out trouble and it helps them get away from problems and violence and being hurt. I think we need that.”
A teenage boy named Santino suggested more mentoring programs. “A lot of us in here have a common theme: our fathers weren’t around, so we need a male figure in out lives to teach us right from wrong.”
George Sheldon, Illinois’ director of the Department of Children and Family Services, also lauded the teens.
“I think if this summit was to end after the youth panel, you would have an agenda moving forward as to what kids need,” he said.
“I’ve said before, we’ve designed a whole child welfare system in this country and we’ve never talked to kids. Who has more invested in this moving forward?”
Also attending the conference were Kathleen Boehmer, deputy chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department, and Judge Michael Toomin, presiding judge of the county’s juvenile justice division.
Noticeably absent was Kim Foxx, who was slated to attend the event. Her spokesperson did not immediately return calls.