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.”