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How Chicago Youth View Police, From School to the Streets

In her new book, the sociologist Carla Shedd explores how kids' perceptions are influenced by the city’s hyper-racial segregation and carceral school policies.

A demonstrator confronts police officers during protests in Chicago, Illinois. (Jim Young/Reuters)

On Wednesday, an autopsy confirmed that Paul O’Neal, a 17-year-old black male, was fatally shot in the back by Chicago police. O’Neal’s killing has sparked several large protests in recent weeks, led by local Black Lives Matter youth organizations.

The demonstrations over O’Neal’s killing come on the heels of numerous youth-led campaigns protesting the Chicago Police Department’s detention and interrogation center at Homan Square, and the department’s alleged cover-up of the 2014 officer-involved killing of Laquan McDonald, another black 17-year-old. Chicago has a vibrant anti-police brutality youth-organizing movement—and it reflects the extreme degree to which police contact and surveillance pervade the lives of young black and Latino people in the city.

How youth experience this contact and surveillance in schools and in the streets is the subject of Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, a new book by Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University, whose work focuses, on crime, criminal justice, race, and social inequality.

In Unequal City, Shedd argues that the students most critical of police contact are often not necessarily those who receive the worst of it; rather, the most critical are those who get to see just how racially differentiated this contact can be. Shedd attributes this divergence in perception to the experiences certain students have when given the opportunity to cross neighborhood lines and attend schools with more integrated student populations.

The qualitative findings in Shedd’s book match up with previous research data on youth perceptions of criminal injustice. Take a look at the map below, based on 2001 survey data collected by the Consortium on Chicago School Research: Many of the neighborhoods where youth experience high levels of police contact, such as the near West Side and the South Side, actually reported relatively low perceptions of injustice. Whereas other neighborhoods with more moderate levels of police contact, such as the far South Side, report the opposite.

(From Carla Shedd’s Unequal City, Russell Sage Foundation)

Speaking with CityLab, Shedd explained that Chicago schools’ racial segregation, along with other social mechanisms, insulates “the perceptions and experiences of both the privileged and the disadvantaged.” People’s visions of justice and fairness are constrained by what they see and what they do not see—and urban segregation plays a major role in shaping this process.

Young black and Latino students’ seeming acceptance of certain abuses in segregated neighborhoods as “normal” may also be, according to Shedd, “an acknowledgment that it is impossible for individual behaviors to change unequal institutions,” and way to cope with greater daily exposure to poverty, aggressive policing, and crime.

You find that many students consider school disciplinary and punitive rather than educational. How did Chicago schools come to be structured this way, and why do they remain like this?

The presence of police in schools in Chicago, and in many other large, urban cities, began in the mid-1990s at the height of our nation's most recent violent crime wave. Police and other markers of security and surveillance (e.g., metal detectors, pat-downs) were brought into schools to purportedly keep students' safe. But safe from whom? These are not mechanisms to protect students from perpetrators unknown and external to the school. Instead, it has the effect of turning what I term the "criminal gaze" inward—onto the students themselves. It assigns treatment to an entire population that should perhaps only be directed to very few—that is, students who might actually perpetrate a criminal act within a school.

As for why this remains, I think the issue is that there are groups that police officers believe are justifiably targeted, and [they are] subjected to harmful mechanisms of criminalization and punishment via order-maintenance/”broken windows policing” (stop and frisk, jump-outs, racial profiling), and black and Hispanic adolescents and young adults usually fit this description.

While this strict in-school policing regimen may be designed to signal control and order, it may also signal to students that they are suspects, and that the space is dangerous. What role does this play in actually generating the inter-student violence it seeks to stamp out?

As I demonstrate in my book, oftentimes the police themselves are the "broken windows" making kids feel less safe. If kids have to be patted down and scanned daily, they start to think that [other] kids must be bringing in weapons, and that may make them believe they need to start doing the same in order to protect themselves. This truly becomes a race to the bottom that is set in place by the low (and criminal) expectations that police (and sometimes school administrators) have for adolescent behavior.

Most South Side students wanted more security, and were more used to police contact. But these students also reported that this “carceral apparatus” robbed them of the joy they knew they were supposed to have as high schoolers. How can this contradiction be resolved?

Urban adolescents are not allowed to be kids. They cannot act silly, be noncompliant, or even get into verbal/physical altercations, because that behavior, which we see as normal for a developing adolescent, can be deemed criminal. And the fact that kids who are subject to the most unjust practices and policies might not be able to discern just how bad their plight is—[and think] it’s as natural as the air that they breathe—is even more heartbreaking. One of the students [in my book], TB, a 9th grader who had been searched multiple times in the past year, responded to my question about how those stops made him feel: “Doesn’t it happen to everyone?” What will happen when he’s able to definitively answer, “No, it doesn’t happen to everyone”?

Some of the South Side students you interviewed did have strong perceptions of racial bias in policing. Did you notice any unique patterns of experiences or personal factors that shaped this notion in them, unlike some of their peers?

Yes, and I think there are several reasons for those differences. And they mostly can be accounted for once you assess the frequency and intensity of both their personal and vicarious (second-hand) experiences with discrimination across different social domains. For instance, Dewayne's [one of the South Side students interviewed] recognition of inequality came from perceiving discrimination and/or witnessing mistreatment of his family members and peers—including seeing his brother handcuffed by police after a minor altercation in school, hearing about his family members’ struggles to find low-wage work in Chicago, and then countering that with going out of his neighborhood and "seeing more of Chicago"—the good and the bad. All of this information works to shape these adolescents' perceptions of both themselves and the unequal world in which they live, at a formative time in their social and political development.  

Many of the youth you interviewed said they wished police would stop harassing them just for walking around, and target "the real criminals." Is that a real choice the police could make? And do see any hope for improved police-youth relations?

Many of the youth I interviewed talked about their great relationships with "Officer Hernandez" or "Officer Johnson," but these individual relationships cannot change a structure and culture of domination and criminalization of entire groups of people because of their race, place, demeanor, and appearance. The police will have to work with communities, and not see themselves in opposition to the civilians they have sworn to serve and protect. This is only a start.

I must also say that, if we were to shore up the social services to serve the most vulnerable groups in our society, there would be less reliance on the police as "first responders" to emergencies like inadequate mental-health care or racially disparate school punishment policies. We should put more resources toward policies and practices within our central social institutions that would educate and support those who are marginalized in our society, instead of using police to punish and incarcerate them after those institutions fail.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.