On Aug. 30, Evanston police detained and handcuffed a 13-year-old African American male at the side of his home. The young man, an honor student entering eighth grade at Chute Middle School, was cleared and released minutes later. His mother, Ava Thompson Greenwell who is an associate professor at Northwestern University, has lodged a complaint against the officers involved.

Perry Polinski, media relations for the Evanston Police Department, told the RoundTable that police received a call that a robbery was in progress in the 1600 block of Seward Street at approximately 11:15 a.m. on Aug. 30. In a tape of the 911 call reporting the burglary, the victim described the intruder: “he seems like a young boy, he’s African American” wearing “cargo khaki kind of shorts” and a “dark brown T-shirt or dark shirt.” The 911 operator immediately told police officers in the area that the suspect was described as a “black male, probably in teens” wearing a “dark shirt and khaki cargo shorts.”

The audio tape released by the police department reflects that police officers began combing the area. One person police began tracking was someone on a bike around Dewey Avenue and Oakton Street that an officer said, from a distance, “kind of matched that description.”

Minutes later police detained the 13-year old in the 1600 block of Kirk street. Mr. Polinski said the young man “fit the description of the robbery suspect and/or he was in the vicinity.” The young man was handcuffed and temporarily detained by police for a “show-up,” which is akin to a line-up conducted on the street, said Mr. Polinski.

The young man said in a television interview with WGN reporters that he had just ridden his bike home when two police officers approached him and told him, “Put your hands up, put them over your head,” and then they handcuffed him at the side of his house.

Ms. Greenwell told the RoundTable she was in her backyard when she heard voices. When she came to the side of the house she saw two police officers handcuffing her son. When she identified herself as his mother, they did not remove the cuffs.

She said she asked why they were handcuffing her son, and one officer said, “Your son matches the description of a burglary suspect.” She said one officer said the description was a “black male wearing cargo shorts.” They said they handcuffed her son because “he might flee.”

The police officers took her son to the front yard for a show-up where three additional police officers were present. When the victim of the robbery arrived, the victim said the young man was not the robber, and he was released.

Ms. Greenwell said the description of the robbery suspect was vague and she questioned whether her son matched the description. Ms. Greenwell said her son was wearing navy blue cargo shorts and a light gray shirt, not khaki cargo shorts and a dark shirt.

Ms. Greenwell said she thought racial profiling was involved. She said she could not get into the officers’ heads, but said she lives in a predominantly white neighborhood and the officers may have thought her son did not belong in the neighborhood.

She also questioned why it was necessary to handcuff her son after she introduced herself as his mother and there were five police officers on her property. She said she thought this constituted excessive force and that police would not have handcuffed a white 13-year-old in front of his home in north Evanston.

“They were dismissive of an Evanston mother who was right there,” she said.

“I think this is a systemic problem,” Ms. Greenwell said. “I think now is the time to really look deeply at what is going on in Evanston and what are they going to do to change it. This is not just for my son, but for all parents who cannot advocate for themselves.”

She added that descriptions of suspects need to be more detailed and the whole idea of a show-up has to be looked at more closely. Unlike a line-up where four or five persons stand in a line and a witness is asked if he or she can identify one of them, at the show-up in front of Ms. Greenwell’s home the only person to be identified or cleared was her son.

On Aug. 30, Ms. Greenwell filed a complaint with the Evanston Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

Ms. Greenwell also raised these issues with the City’s Human Services Committee on Sept. 5 and with City Council on Sept. 10.

Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington told the RoundTable that he “committed to the Human Services Committee” to have the investigation done in 45 to 60 days. He said the investigation will look both at policies and at the police officers’ conduct to see if there are any shortcomings in the policies or any shortcomings in the conduct.

While not commenting on the specific incident, Chief Eddington commented generally on several issues. When asked if a 13-year-old should be handcuffed, he said once police have taken custody of someone, “we have jacked-up our responsibility level.” He said a 13-year-old could flee and outrun the officers, and the 13-year-old might panic and run and potentially hurt him- or herself. “That’s a component of this case that has to be considered. … Was the officer’s judgment in this specific case reasonable.”

He said the use of show-ups is a standard practice in many communities throughout the country. He said in solving crimes, “timing is everything.” If the person detained is not the offender, he said, “We need to get him on his way and we need to continue looking for the offender.”

When asked about racial profiling, he said if a victim describes a suspect as having a specific gender and race, it would make no sense to stop people who are not that gender and race.

As to the claim that the same thing would not have occurred to a white 13-year-old in North Evanston, the Chief said, “We don’t have a north side set of rules or a south side set of rules.” He said a decision to handcuff a person is guided by the need to control the person and not having to chase the person. He said, “That decision is not based on color.”

“As a parent,” he said, “I’m aware that this is a dramatic and difficult event. I have three adult children and two of the three have had similar encounters with law enforcement. From the parent’s perspective, I understand there is a desire to have one’s child treated fairly and equitably. I’m committed to making sure the investigation is fair and equitable.”

George Mitchell, president of the Evanston branch of the NAACP and president of Illinois Conference of Branches of the NAACP, told the RoundTable, “What are five or six policemen doing handcuffing a 13-year-old boy – with his mother standing right there? That’s wrong. … I would call that inappropriate police behavior. If they’re following policies, something’s got to change. We’ve got to change it for the long haul.”

Mr. Mitchell said his concern is when the police engage in these types of activities, they damage their relationship with the community and damage their image. “What’s an African American parent or teenager going to think?” he asked.

Commander Aretha Hartley, Office of Professional Standards at the Evanston Police Department, issued a statement saying, “It is the officers’ perception that they were following protocol in detaining and handcuffing the youth for an identifying show-up.”

City Council Reacts to the Handcuffing

At the Sept. 10 City Council meeting, Ava Thompson Greenwell said the incident in which her 13-year-old son was detained and handcuffed provides “”some teachable moments.”” She said, “”It’s time to have a serious discussion about racial profiling in our city. But just talking about it is not enough. We must act.”” She asked for a written apology and for a full investigation. She also asked that the City analyze records of police stops for the last five years and implement policies that address racial profiling.

Dale Greenwell, the father of the 13-year old, said, “”It’s not acceptable to round up the innocent to apprehend the guilty. This practice is called profiling.”” He added, “”I don’t want [my son] growing up disliking law enforcement because we know most officers do the right thing and do a good job. Our complaint is primarily about the lack of discretion and respect that was shown.””

Other speakers including Reverend Mark Dennis, pastor of Second Baptist Church, George Mitchell, president of the Evanston branch of the NAACP and president of the Illinois Conference of Branches of the NAACP, and Joshua Hall, president of the Evanston Township High School NAACP, said profiling is a problem that needs to be addressed. Rev. Davis said, “”It will happen again unless we call attention to it, unless we take corrective action. We can do better.””

Ald. Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said the Human Services Committee discussed the issue at its Sept. 5 meeting. “”We talked about putting this on the fast track,”” she said. “”We are going to look into this as soon as it comes back before the Human Services Committee.””

“”Alderman Holmes mentioned in the Human Services Committee and I’ll say again, on behalf of this Council and the City, an apology to the Greenwells and also to their son,”” said Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. “”In the same breath, I will applaud Chief Eddington. He’s a good police chief and he does care about the community.

“”I did hear and I hope everyone else heard what the Greenwells had to say in terms of their comments about the police department. This isn’t an indictment of the police department, but really it’s challenging us to look very closely at those who have displayed this behavior which the community came out to speak about.””

Ald. Braithwaite asked the Human Services Committee to look at the statistics and “”drill down”” to look at the frequency of complaints about any officers. He said he thought there should be additional training of police officers.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she appreciated the comments about the police department “”because we do have a police department that tries.”” She said the City should address the issues raised by the Greenwells, remembering that last week the police did a “”fabulous job”” with two young children who were forced to rob homes by older men, and remembering the terror the woman felt when she walked into her home as it was being robbed. “”I believe if we keep this all in mind we will succeed and do a better job in Evanston.””

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...