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After Her Son, 13, Was Handcuffed, An Evanston Mom Speaks Out

Last Thursday, Ava Thompson Greenwell's 13-year-old son was handcuffed and detained by police who mistakenly suspected him in a burglary. She talked to Patch Tuesday, explaining why she believes it was racial profiling.

Ava Thompson Greenwell stepped out of her home on Kirk Street last Thursday to see police clamping silver handcuffs around her 13-year-old son Diwani’s wrists.

They did not identify themselves to Greenwell or her son, and ignored her repeated requests for an explanation as he stood in her front yard, surrounded by several police officers on the street and in cars. 

“It was really a surreal experience,” Greenwell told Patch. “My son is a very upstanding Evanston youth. He participates in band at school, after school basketball leagues—I’m thinking to myself, clearly, they’ve made a mistake.” 

It was indeed a mistake. released Greenwell’s son, Diwani, after the victim of a recent burglary arrived and told officers they had the wrong person. Police told Greenwell they were simply looking for an African American man wearing cargo shorts—and Diwani happened to be wearing cargo shorts that day. 

“They just assumed he was guilty and cuffed him,” says Greenwell, who filed a complaint with the Evanston Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards last Friday. “I just can’t imagine how this can happen on your own property in the United States of America.”

Greenwell says she doesn’t have a problem with police questioning people in the neighborhood about a burglary. In this case, however, she believes Evanston police jumped to conclusions about her son based on his race.

A professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Greenwell obtained the tape of the 9-11 call about the burglary. Listening to the recording, she heard the victim tell the dispatcher that the burglar had been wearing khaki colored cargo shorts. Diwani was wearing navy blue cargo shorts.

Why weren’t police given a better description to go on, Greenwell wonders? Why didn’t the dispatcher ask the victim more questions, about say, the suspect’s facial hair, piercings or skin color? 

“People of African descent come in shades from ebony to ivory,” she says. “Just being a black male doesn’t come in that much help when you’re looking for someone.” 

Greenwell also feels that the five police officers who surrounded her son in front of their home constitute an excessive display of force. 

“Do you need that many police officers for a 13-year-old boy who’s standing in front of his house with his mother?” she says. 

Finally, Greenwell believes the incident was an example of racial profiling. Her neighborhood is predominantly white, with just a few African-American families in the cul-de-sac where she lives. As the police officers in unmarked cars followed her son home on his bike, she believes they began to make assumptions. 

“I think this officer thought, ‘This kid is in the wrong neighborhood, he doesn’t belong here,’” she says. 

While it was very upsetting, the incident was not surprising, Greenwell says. As early as age 10, she says, she and her husband had coached her son on how to react if he was ever stopped by police. “Don’t make any quick moves,” they told him. “Just do what they tell you, and we’ll deal with them later.” 

“You talk to any black male, I don’t care where they live, they will tell you a story, whether it happened to them as a youth or as an adult,” Greenwell says. “We have to socialize our children differently. It’s unfair.”

Since police slapped a pair of handcuffs on her son, Greenwell says she has heard from many African-American men or parents whose kids have experienced something similar in Evanston.

“I think people feel helpless, like they can’t do anything about it,” she says. 

By filing an official complaint with the police department, Greenwell hopes to spur revision of policies and procedures.

“We don’t want this to happen to other people,” she says. 

Already, members of the police department’s Office of Professional Standards have interviewed Greenwell and her son. They will interview the officers involved as well, according to police spokesperson Perry Polinski. 

In a statement released last Friday, Evanston Police Comm. Aretha Hartley of the Office of Professional Standards said it was the “officers’ perception that they were following protocol in using their discretion in detaining and handcuffing” Diwani. 

The police department is still conducting its internal investigation, according to Polinski. Officers told Greenwell it could be up to three months before the complaint is resolved. 

“I hope it will be an honest investigation,” she says. “I just don’t think this would have happened on Central in North Evanston to a white kid who was rolling his bike up his driveway.”

Greenwell also plans to address Evanston aldermen during the Human Services Committee at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, and again at the regular city council meeting scheduled for Monday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Both take place in the Civic Center. 

Meanwhile, her son attended his first day at on Tuesday. Greenwell and her husband are concerned not just about the immediate effects of the incident—which made Diwani angry and upset—but also about the long-term results. 

“This is not just for him, this is for all the other young black males who get stopped for no valid reason,” she says. “It’s just unconscionable to me that we treat our young ones this way.”

Earl Weiss September 05, 2012 at 11:43 AM
Conspicuosly absent from the story is any info about the suspect's height, weght, apparent age and how that matched up with appearance of the person detained.
Jim September 05, 2012 at 02:30 PM
I understand the upset of this mom but is this really a racial issue. If a witness to the crime in the area described the offender as black with cargo shorts on about 17 years of age and the police have a protocolo for arrest which includes securing the hands, this can hardly be racial profiling. If a witness told police that the offender was a fat old man with glassess, grey hair in shorts and a red golf shirt on a bicycle, is that racial profiling? C'mon folks. Let's get real. If the "profile" of the offender includes race then that is the profile, black or white, yellow, brown or green.
chally September 05, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Ridiculous I feel for your family especially your son. I pray this experience does not affect your son.
chally September 05, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Jim authorities did a poor job from 911 to cops. I do not want to go down the race channel because I am being optimistic that we are beyond that but something is telling me some people aren't.
Jennifer Fisher (Editor) September 05, 2012 at 02:56 PM
That's a good question, Earl. I'll see if I can find out what police officers were told.
Jennifer Fisher (Editor) September 05, 2012 at 07:47 PM
@Earl -- According to a spokesperson for the Evanston Police Department, this is the description officers were given: "A tall, thin, male black in his teens wearing a dark-colored shirt and khaki cargo pants."
Earl Weiss September 05, 2012 at 08:05 PM
There are at least 5 sides to every story. What the 2 sides say happened, What the press reports, what the court decides and the truth. We at least have here a press report of what the spokesperson said. So, the next question might be how "Tall" is "Tall" . I am no expert but have seen the height of 13 year olds vary greatly.
Jennifer Fisher (Editor) September 05, 2012 at 08:45 PM
Greenwell told WGN that her son is 5'6".
Richard Schulte September 05, 2012 at 09:29 PM
It appears that Evanston is in the mist of a violent crime wave. It is unfortunate that that the citizens of Evanston seem to dislike the Evanston Police Department. The EPD could really use the support of the citizens, but it seems like the citizens like the criminals more than the police. With that attitude, it is my prediction that Evanston will turn into East St. Louis in the not too distant future. I grew up in Belleville, Illinois, so I am familiar with East St. Louis-the change from a thriving community to a train-wreck happened almost overnight. The City Manager of Evanston is from St. Louis and I'm sure he is familiar with the history of East St. Louis. Don't believe me-ask the City Manager.
David Lindgren September 06, 2012 at 11:18 AM
Whether this case is racial profiling or not - I believe that it is a factor here - the sensitivity of the police didn't recognize the impact on what they call "suspects". Here is a 13 year BOY, an impressionable, upstanding kid who is surrounded by many cops who because of department policy handcup the boy. Do they ever think of the impact of THEIR behavior on a child? No, they believe that they are protecting US, the citizens. This is an example of "classism", an African-American boy is assumed to belong to a class of people that is associated with crime. And this occurs even in a relatively enlighted community like Evanston. The question we are left with is, "are the police trained first to be concerned for the safety and welfare of all of its citizens"? Or do they understand that the boys are purportedly dealing with their own adolescence and growing up. When did we have police who as a department took on the challenge of being advocates rather than adversaries of young men? Mrs. Greenwell is a brave, articulate woman who deserves our respect and appreciation for standing up for fairness and freedom of young men growing up in a society that doesn't prejudge them.
Jim September 06, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Let's assume that this wasn't handled perfectly. Life is perverse. The police are not perfect but then I doubt that the professor is either. I know I am far from it but I bet all do the best they can. WE should give the son the benefit of the doubt because at 13, he probably is close to perfect but some 13 year olds are indeed criminals so youth should not deter the police from doing their job. In terms of racism, why does the professor live in an"upscale" area. I assume because she believes it is more safe. Isn't that racism or if you prefer, classism?
Earl Weiss September 06, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Poice have procedures to follow. Just because you are a professor does not mean you know more about proper police procedures than the police. Which does not mean to imply they were right in this case, but there was a news story a while back resulting in the White House "Beer Summit". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Louis_Gates_arrest_controversy That professor thought the cops were wrong for asking him to step outside his house. He was wrong. They were right. How do I know? I have had the police ask me to do the very same. Seems they saw an open door in the middle of the night, rang my bell, asked me to step outside and speak to them. Why? Because if a home invasion was in progress that gets me out of harms way or away from any stashed weapons if I'm the bad guy. So, in the beer summit case the Professor was wrong. In this case? Time may tell. .
Victor Boyd September 06, 2012 at 06:13 PM
In 1989 I moved to Evanston from the Beverly area to marry my wife whom is from E-town. And almost from day one the EPD made it known to me how black men (young and old ) are to be treated. Here are just a few of MY interactions with the fine people that compromise the EPD; 1. On a very cold winter day I was on my way to the store when I saw the flashing blue lights behind me. I asked the cop why are you stopping me I was told to shut up and watch my attitude, after they patted me down and tossed my car I was told to take off my shoes and pull down my pants. After carefully searching my scrotum , I reached down to pull my pants up...I was told not to move. 2. On early spring day I was driving home from work and just about two blocks from home I saw the flashing blues again. As I pulled over I heard my son say "Hey Dad" and his buddies say, "Hey Mr. Boyd" because I had coached many of my son friends in EBYA and Chargers Youth Football. Once out of the car after explaining to the officers who I was, were I lived and that my kids are standing right there...they searched me as if I was a common criminal in front of my son's and their friends. I have more stories of the EPD and me....so if there is anyone out there that don't believe racial profiling is happening in "progressive" Evanston feel free to take a ride with me because I haven't been stopped in a while and my turn should be coming soon. Because for black men in Evanston getting "stopped" is a way of life.
Erica September 06, 2012 at 09:23 PM
Racial profiling refers to the use of an individual’s race or ethnicity by law enforcement personnel as a key factor in deciding whether to engage in enforcement (e.g. make a traffic stop, street stop or arrest). There was a witness giving a description. This wasn't a random stop.
A. Franklyn - Las Vegas September 06, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Jim, Because she can very well "afford" to live where ever the heck she wants to.. If you want to call it classism then classism it is. The better your income and education, more than likely you will "move on up.....to the eastside and finally get a piece of the pie"! Where do you live?
Jim September 07, 2012 at 12:48 AM
A. Franklyn, I live in The Peoples Republic of Evanston where the police blotter is getting longer and longer and with more serious crimes. Too many DWLs in Evanston who will eventually ruin the city entirely and then move to another area which they will proceed to ruin as well.
Sully September 07, 2012 at 11:28 AM
Maybe you should move to Florida. Pardon my ignorance, but what is a DWL?
oldschool71 September 07, 2012 at 11:55 AM
Being from deepest Southern Illinois, the comparison between Evanston and East St. Louis, is totally inapplicable. For all of the problems that East St. Louis had and has, they can in general be laid on the steps of racism and bad economics. First, ESL, was a town with large industrial base, packing, railroading, manufacturing. When meat packing moved away, railroads modernized and reduced manpower, general manufacturing declined, the town began a decent that was unstoppable, Throw in a level of racism that in this country existed in only a few other places The building of the free bridge across the Mississippi river also had a terrible impact of the cities economy. Racism, in ESL was so deeply ingrained, that when the last white city administration left office, they took every thing, even the blueprints and plans for the city sewer system. So your comparison between Evanston and East St Louis, Illinois, is not correct. Regarding the charge of profiling, being Black, but appearing dam near white, I can list any number of incidents, where my brown brothers where treated differently than I, in the same situation. Racial profiling and Racism are alive and well
allofus September 07, 2012 at 12:33 PM
So it's racist for African Americans to live wherever they want to live? Wow. That's a new low.
Jim September 08, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Sully, So glad you asked. DWL is disingenuous white liberal.
Sully September 08, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Then why are you here? If you don't like it, leave.
Just Sayin September 08, 2012 at 02:28 AM
Sully...I cracked up laughing at your suggestion that Jim should move to Florida! Good one !
Billy Haynes October 27, 2012 at 07:34 AM
Suburban police are indeed racist. Wait until the racial profiling lawsuits start piling up. They will refrain from their racist policies. My black friend dropped me off from our work one day and a Morton grove cop pulled us over in front of my house. Searched us, the car, and outside the car. He then checked our ID's in his car over the radio and had us sit on the curb of the street which I lived on. He then walked over to me gave me both ID's and said "Had it not been for you This N-word would be coming with me" and he chuckled as he got back in his car. I was embarrassed that the police would say and do something so immoral. I asked my friend to drop me off and he had to endure this behavior from someone who's supposed to be a professional authority figure. For those of you who are new to this racism (especially white Americans), welcome to the United States Of America!
Dan Cox October 27, 2012 at 10:51 AM
Jesse Jackson is quoted as saying that he was walking one night and heard somebody running up behind him, he stated that at first he was scared but then saw it was just a white guy! Jesse Jackson also said that somebody should cut Obama's Ball's off, how's that appropriate? Racism is just as strong or stronger in the Black Community as in any white community, to say it isn't, is just foolishness.

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