After her 13-year-old son was wrongly arrested as a suspect in a burglary, Evanston parent Ava Thompson Greenwell is demanding a formal, written apology and a commitment to major change in the police department.
“It’s time to have a serious discussion about racial profiling in our city,” Greenwell told the council on Monday. “But just talking about it is not enough. We must act.”
, an honor student at , in his front yard on Thursday, Aug. 30. Officers were searching for a “a male black juvenile with a dark shirt and khaki cargo shorts;” Diwani, who is African-American, was wearing a light-colored shirt and navy blue cargo shorts that day. Police handcuffed him and detained him until the victim of the burglary arrived and identified him as the wrong person in what is called a “show-up”.
Greenwell was standing outside her home when the incident happened, and with the police department. She alleges that they used excessive force in handcuffing her son, ignored her questions, failed to obtain a detailed description of the suspect and ultimately stopped her son based almost entirely on his race.
What her son experienced, she said, is not uncommon—and several other families had contacted her to say with the .
“A 2009 ACLU report called racial profiling a ‘widespread and pervasive problem’ throughout the United States,” Greenwell said. “So to think it doesn’t happen in Evanston is sinking our heads in the sand.”
Greenwell called for action by the city, the police and . Among other requests, she asked that the city review and make public all records of anyone stopped by the Evanston Police Department, perhaps in conjunction with experts at Northwestern University, where she is a professor. She asked that police review 911 dispatch center training, and that District 65 teach students how to act when stopped by police. Greenwell also said the police department should reconsider its policy of bringing eyewitnesses to identify potential suspects in person.
Several community leaders and fellow parents came to the meeting in support of the Greenwells. George Mitchell, president of the Evanston/North Shore Branch of the NAACP, asked the city council to consider how the incident would affect Diwani Greenwell in the future.
“I think it is important for the entire community to stand in support of this 13-year-old,” Mitchell said. “I think it is important that the entire community demand better ways of confronting people.”
Rev. Mark Dennis of Evanston’s described the Greenwells as “one of the best families” in his congregation and Diwani as “a young man with much promise.”
Like Diwani’s mother, he described the incident as a case of racial profiling gone wrong that many in Evanston’s black community have experienced.
“It’s happened to my son, and it’s happened to my father, and it’s happened to me, several times, even at age 63,” Dennis said. “It becomes an oppressive tool to denigrate the soul.”
Joshua Hall, vice president of student chapter of the NAACP at Evanston Township High School, also said the incident was indicative of a larger problem in Evanston. The experience of being wrongly arrested, he said, leaves behind lasting bitterness and anger in young black people.
“It’s a shame how my own mother and grandmother feel the need to teach me survival skills when I walk outside my own door,” he said.
Addressing the Greenwells, Ald. Delores Holmes said that the human services committee would investigate the complaint with the police department as soon as the review was completed, a process Chief Richard Eddington said could take 45 to 60 days. Holmes also said that Evanston’s rules committee should look into ways to encourage police and firefighters to live in the community.
Ald. Braithwaite extended an apology to the Greenwells and asked the human services committee to examine the frequency with which complaints are filed about certain officers. While he cautioned that the criticism should not be viewed as “an indictment of the police department,” he also acknowledged that changes should be made.
“We spend thousands of dollars to train our police to shoot effectively,” Braithwaite said. “I’d like to think, in a city like Evanston, that everything is manageable if we choose to make it a priority.”