Youth/Police Conference / by Jamie Kalven

University of Chicago Law School
Friday–Saturday, April 24–25

The aim of the Youth/Police Conference is to deepen the discourse about issues arising from interactions between African-American youth and police in urban America.  We began planning this occasion before events in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland put these issues at the center of a national conversation.  We hope to enrich that conversation by drawing on the experiences and perspectives of African-American youth in framing the issues and themes to be addressed.

The Conference grows out of a collaborative project, developed by the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School and the Invisible Institute, that focuses on everyday encounters--on the countless interactions between teenagers and police that take place daily in cities across the country.  Our methodology has been simple.  We have talked extensively with Chicago inner city youth.  And we have listened.  We have avoided conventional policy frames –e.g., “stop and frisk” – and instead have asked the teenagers we work with to describe their encounters with the police in their own words, to tell us how those encounters make them feel, and to reflect on how their experiences with the police shape their behavior.

We have learned a great deal.  The students have challenged us and unsettled our thinking about accepted practices, opening fresh lines of inquiry.  We see the conference as an occasion for enlarging the conversation.  It will be a two day event, comprised of six panels, to which we are inviting scholars, police officials, students, policymakers, advocates, judges, and others with relevant experience and expertise.

Each panel will begin with a short video, multimedia piece, or performance prepared for the conference in collaboration with the high school students involved in the project.  A moderated public conversation among three to four panelists will explore questions and issues raised by the introductory material.  There will be significant interplay with the audience.  Unlike the traditional academic conference, we are not asking speakers to present a formal talk or paper.  Our conversations will be the essence of the event.  We see the individual panels as part of a continuing conversation and will orchestrate them so that each builds on what comes before.

The panels will be moderated by Steve Edwards, Executive Director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and a former NPR host, and Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute.

Conference panels:

“How Youth See Police. How Police See Youth.” 
Countless interactions occur daily in urban America between Black youth and police. An encounter between a police officer engaged in a legitimate investigative mission and a teen innocent of any wrongdoing can be fraught. It can go wrong in a variety of ways, often with major consequences for the individuals involved and for community-police relations. What do these encounters look and feel like? How are they experienced by youth? How are they experienced by police? How do they shape the ways each sees the other?

“How it Makes Me Feel—Youth.” 
How do these encounters, and the contexts in which they occur, shape the attitudes and identities of African-American youth—the way they see themselves and their place in the world? How do these encounters affect their orientation toward law enforcement? How do these encounters affect their personal development and their ability to navigate public space?

“How it Makes Me Feel—Police.” 
Every day we put police officers in what often feels like an impossible situation: Get gangs, guns, and drugs off our streets. Keep us safe from violence. At the same time, there is widespread criticism of the practice of stopping and searching Black youth as a crime-fighting tactic. How do police experience this apparent catch 22?  How do youth/police encounters impact law enforcement?

“They Have All the Power.”
Why does police accountability matter in this context? How does the knowledge that severe abuses – brutality, sexual assault, false arrest, even death – have gone unpunished inform and shape even civil, uneventful encounters? What are the costs and harms of the absence of accountability? How does the lack of accountability affect the relationships between youth and police? How does it impact our effectiveness in addressing crime and violence? How could improved transparency and accountability affect youth/police relations?

“I Can’t Imagine Anything Different. ” 
Many view strained relations between police and minority youth as difficult if not impossible to change. They see the status quo as intractable. What is the impact of such attitudes? Is there reason to believe that relations can improve? What do constructive youth/police relations look like? How can police and youth work together to build better relationships?

“Where Do We Go From Here?”  
The final panel, in which all panelists and the audience will participate, will be devoted to a discussion of next steps and prescriptive strategies for addressing the issues explored in the course of the conference.