Through Theatre, Justice-Involved Youth and CPD Recruits Put Themselves In One Another’s Shoes

Chicago police officers and justice-involved youth from Storycatchers Theatre sing and dance together during an empathy-building workshop at the Chicago History Museum on August 20, 2019. Photo by Pat Nabong


“Why don’t I have any real power?” sang dozens of Chicago Police recruits and justice-involved youth in a chorus. Facing them, another group of young adults and recruits chanted, “Protect and serve! Protect and serve!”

It’s a scene that happens once a month — not on the streets but in the confines of a hall. On Tuesday, a room in the Chicago History Museum was packed with recruits dressed in powder blue. Around 50 of them and justice-involved youth from Storycatchers Theatre participated in a workshop where they reversed roles and acted out common scenarios.

Amidst problems that plague the Chicago Police Department like the code of silenceand systemic abusesfound by the DOJ in 2017, Storycatchers Theatre is trying to help repair the fractured relationship between the police and black and brown communities. The exercise aimed to “get the power structures to a level playing field” and create a safe environment for youth and recruits to learn from one another, said Storycatchers Theatre’s Executive Director Priya Shah, who was dressed in the same shade of blue as the recruits.

Storycatchers Theatre is a nonprofit that employs justice-involved youth to tell their stories.

“We hope that [the workshop] gives the young people a voice [and] it builds empathy within the recruits, so that they can see things from other people’s perspective and a different lens,” said Tim Crawford, an officer from the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Restorative Justice Strategies.

The workshop consisted of two scenes. In the first scenario, some recruits and a justice-involved youth acted as civilians driving along the highway on a cold night, while one justice-involved youth and a recruit played the role of aggressive police officers. The rest of the recruits and Storycatchers members were part of the ensemble.

The play, which was a true story by a Storycatchers participant, started with a flashback of one of the civilians in the car. Sean, who was being played by a recruit, was shot five times by a police officer in the past when the BB gun he was holding was mistaken for a real gun. That trauma followed Sean into the present when police stopped the car that he was riding in with his friends. The officers, who didn’t properly explain why they pulled them over, called for backup and ransacked the car, searching for a gun. After, with their guns drawn at the civilians, police forced them to kneel down on the curb of the road with their arms over their heads while they were aggressively questioned. Officers didn’t find a gun and, with the civilians’ car keys, they fled the scene. It was revealed later that officers stopped them because their vehicle resembled that of a suspected robber, but that information was not made clear to them.

The second act was slightly different. Based on real Chicago police officers’ feedback about the first scenario, the play was told from the perspective of the police. It brought to light the backstory of one of the officers, who apparently carried traumatic memories of his own; his relative was a victim of a crime. Acted out by both Storycatchers participants and recruits, the scenario played out a bit differently, too. This time, officers followed protocol and treated civilians with respect. As a result, the second scene ended more peacefully than the first.

“I really personally feel like this particular workshop helps a lot of the relationships in understanding both sides of the story,” said Nisha Davis, a Storycatchers member who participated in the workshop. “When you help understand the situation, you better know how to create better opportunities with [people] going forward.”

After each scenario, a facilitator from Storycatchers turned to participants and asked questions. “How did [the civilians] feel at the end?” “Did the police follow protocol?” “Who in the vehicle was traumatized and how do you think that affects him?”

When the facilitator asked what they thought would have happened if Sean ran instead of obeying officers’ orders, several recruits and justice-involved youth said, “He would’ve been shot.”

Crawford interjected and explained that officers shouldn’t shoot active resisters. He then explained the protocol for such a scenario.

“At first, I really did feel like all the police officers know protocol. They just choose not to follow it,” said Davis, who has participated in several workshops before and has had unpleasant encounters with the police. “But then again after doing several of these workshops, [I realized] a lot of them put their personal experiences into their policing as well. … There are a lot of different underlying issues that people have to deal with.”

Understanding those issues has tremendous value, said Lorna McCall, a recruit who has been in training for 18 weeks now. Having grown up on the South Side of Chicago as the daughter of a police officer, McCall said she learned the importance of conversation in facilitating understanding.

“My mom always said, ‘Treat people how you want to be treated,’ obviously. Everyone has a story. You don’t know it unless you ask them about it,” she said.

Davis said knowing more about a person and a community helps officers on the field.

“If you get the perspectives from the people themselves, the ones who are actually being pulled over, the ones who are actually being profiled … it helps you do your job,” Davis added.

The monthly workshop started in 2017. To date, around 2,200 recruits have participated in it, according to Shah. In the future, Storycatchers Theatre hopes to bring the workshop to different neighborhoods around the city.

“At the end of the story, who holds the power?” asked the facilitator.

“The police,” said several Storycatchers participants and recruits.

A recruit in the back said, “The civilians because the way they react is how … we’re going to react, so they have control of the situation.”

The exercise brought to light a difference in opinions, but it also revealed people’s ability to put themselves in one another’s shoes — a message that underlay the entire workshop. That’s the first step in repairing the systemic problems within the Chicago Police Department, said Shah.

“My hope is that Chicago Police Department officers go into communities, especially black and brown communities, and work with the youth with no biases and sees a strong human side,” Shah said. “When they can be taught to really understand that there’s a person on the other side who has tremendous potential, who has a life, who has been through trauma in their personal lives and that’s the reason that they actually became justice-involved … that understanding is so powerful.”

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