Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to deploy 500 additional beat officers this summer to a handful of the city’s highest-crime areas could mean that more black teens are headed to jail for low-level crimes at a rate disproportionate to teens of other races.
A Chicago Reporter analysis of Cook County court cases found that black teens aged 15, 16 and 17 are nearly four times more likely to be charged with misdemeanor crimes than white and Latino youth combined.
This summer, the additional officers are heading to eight districts, seven of which are majority-black. These areas are also home to the bulk of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds from Chicago who have had misdemeanor court cases initiated against them over the past five years, according to the Reporter’s analysis.
“Police in high-crime neighborhoods patrol with a different set of eyes, with greater suspicion,” said Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice and psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago.
For decades, Edith Crigler, associate director of the Chicago Area Project, has worked with police, schools and other nonprofits on the city’s South and West sides to deflect youth from the criminal justice system. That job has become more difficult, she said, as residents increasingly rely on police to remove kids who are roughhousing in the alleys or hanging out on street corners.
“Adults call police when they see any little thing,” she said.
Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose South Side ward includes two of the targeted districts, said it’s often difficult to tell which “kid has drugs on them or is working as a lookout.”
As a result, over the past five years, twice as many black teens in Chicago were arrested merely on the suspicion of peddling drugs, for example, compared with the number of white teens in all of Cook County who were arrested for marijuana possession.
During that time, 1,379 cases of soliciting unlawful business were opened against 17-year-olds alone in Chicago. Only one-quarter of the cases included drug charges, the Reporter’s analysis found. The youth were ultimately convicted in only 79 of the cases. Five of the defendants were white, but 99.2 percent of them were black.
“Just because you’re a black boy standing on the corner with some friends doesn’t mean that you’re up to no good,” Crigler said. Some of the teens she works with come from homes that are so dysfunctional that hanging out with their friends on the streets can be a haven. “But police officers don’t have the tools and the language to communicate with these children,” she said.
Hairston said “it’s always a concern” that police might end up cracking down too hard on youth in her ward, which includes South Shore, parts of Woodlawn and Washington Park. But she defers to the courts to decide whether arrests warrant prosecution.
Only one-quarter of the juvenile misdemeanor cases initiated against teens aged 15, 16 and 17 between 2006 and 2010 ended with a conviction, the Reporter found. Even those cases that fell apart can have lasting consequences, Lurigio said.
“If you’ve been arrested previously, that increases your risk of arrest. It also increases your chance of being prosecuted,” Lurigio said. “If you have a previous arrest, you’re more likely to be found guilty or to plead guilty.”
Police brass are hoping that assigning more cops to regular beats will help engage residents and foster new relationships to make quality arrests that undermine crime. But some residents are skeptical that the department will be able to quickly heal major trust problems between residents and police, which has been in decline for years.
Pat Hill, executive director of Chicago’s African American Police League, said changing police attitudes toward high-crime areas overnight is unlikely.
When officers don’t live or have connections with the communities that they police, Hill said, it can be difficult to distinguish between youth who are aimless and those who are criminal.
Hill, a retired police officer and high school teacher, knows from experience. After buying a house at 38th Street and Wabash Avenue that sat in the heart of the Wentworth police district she patrolled daily, she grew skilled at recognizing who was at the root of the district’s crime.
When Hill saw teens hanging out on a weekday, she’d walk them back to their school. Back at the station, she’d take heat from her superiors who felt she should have instead arrested the youth on truancy charges.
“You have white boys [engaged] in the same behavior and it’s considered delinquency,” she said. “But when black boys do it, it’s criminal.”