Constitutional Democracy Project’s Youth Summit Highlights Common Ground on ‘Defunding the Police’

Chicago-Kent Program Brought Together Students with Stakeholders on All Sides of Issue



By Tad Vezner
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In its effort to teach teenagers constructive discussion about contentious topics, the Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Constitutional Democracy Project recently hosted a youth summit on “defunding the police,” putting social justice advocates on a panel alongside the president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

The dozens of teenagers who attended the virtual event saw much less polarization than one might expect.

“The things that we know actually create safety are not getting funded…Education, housing, access to health care, access to a job. When we invest in those things, it creates strong individuals and strong communities,” said panelist Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives.

“I am not in disagreement,” replied Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police President Mitchell Davis. The first person of color to serve as president of the association, Davis said that he derived his opinion not just from his experiences as an officer, but also from “my 58 years being a Black man.”

“Those systemic problems that have gotten us where we are right now need to absolutely be addressed. We obviously cannot arrest our way out of the challenges that we have,” Davis added.

The third panelist, Adam Gross, director of police accountability for BPI (formerly Business and Professional People for the Public Interest), a Chicago-based law and policy center, said those asking about how to “fix” police departments were asking the wrong questions.

“For me, the discussion about defunding the police is really about shifting that conversation away from just asking, ‘How can the police department do this better?’ to asking, ‘How can we all be safer?’” said Gross. “If we focus most of our discussion on the first question…we’ll miss tons of answers to the bigger and more important [second] question.” 

The CDP’s 2021 Illinois Youth Summit brought about 120 students from 10 Chicago-area schools together over Zoom to watch panelists discuss the varied meanings of “defunding the police” and later, to ask questions on trending law enforcement topics, such as qualified immunity, no-knock warrants, and body cameras. 

“The thing that’s fascinating is [the CDP] brought in people that you would think would not be comfortable speaking to this group. And I thought that was really impressive,” said Leah Whitesel, who teaches at Farragut Career Academy in the Chicago Public Schools district. Roughly 20 students from her civics class attended the May 14 event.

But the initial definition of “defunding the police” was the first and longest order of discussion. With $115 billion spent annually on policing in the United States, and $1.7 billion on the Chicago Police Department alone, such groundwork carries a lot of fiscal weight.

Enyia, who also serves as a strategist and social impact consultant for organizations and governmental bodies, noted the phrase meant different things to different people.

“We imagine a society where we don’t have a need for police at all. That is our North Star,” she said. “We don’t believe that police create safety. We believe policing is reactionary.”

Said Davis, who is also the police chief in Hazel Crest, Illinois, “For me, defunding the police is a call for reallocation of funding to what society believes it should be directed at.” 

He pointed out that “defunding” has already happened for other government spending. In the late 1990s social service agencies that address homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness were drastically cut.

“Quite often we’re dealing with things where, absolutely, there are people better equipped to deal with it than we are,” Davis said.

Gross agreed. “[Police] have handcuffs and guns and Tasers and batons, and then we send them out with those tools to engage with people who have undiagnosed mental health issues or are in the throes of addiction,” Gross said. “When we send the wrong people out with the wrong tools, people will get hurt and people will die.”

But Davis added, “I’m not Chicago; I’m Hazel Crest. When those [other programs] were defunded, the money that was saved wasn’t given to us…I’ve got squad cars sitting outside that have almost 200,000 miles on them.” 

Enyia agreed that one shouldn’t point fingers solely at police for existing problems.

“What that does is it absolves policy makers…of their responsibility in helping to create the circumstances that they’re now punting over to police to solve,” she said. 

Whitesel, the CPS teacher, said, “My students are on all sides of this issue. I have students who want to be police officers or whose family are officers, and I have students who were friends with people shot by officers. This is really a raw issue.” But having attended the CDP summits several times, she added, “It feels like they’re doing a good job of listening to and respecting each other…Even for those students who seem adamant in their positions.”

Students later debated solutions in groups, which college students and Chicago-Kent law students facilitated. After it was over, 64 students responded to a survey evaluating the event. When asked if they had a better understanding of what defunding the police meant, 84 percent of students replied with a four or five on a scale of one to five. 

Other responses were also overwhelmingly positive, with 72 percent giving similar high scores when asked if they would “follow the issue more closely” and 84 percent scoring high when asked if they had a “better overall understanding of the issues involved.”

“One important lesson I learned from this summit is that problems in life cannot be solved similarly to a math equation (i.e., 1+1=2); there are a number of moving parts that need to be taken into account,” one student wrote in their evaluation.

Dee Runaas, the CDP’s project director, said, "Helping high school students see that kind of nuance is a big part of what we try to do. And we want them to be comfortable talking about tough issues with people they disagree with."

Chicago-Kent professor Carolyn Shapiro, who is also the CDP’s faculty director, added, "Those skills are more necessary than ever given the polarization in our country. And they are essential skills for a democracy."

Photo: In this 2017 photo, students are pictured taking part in a Constitutional Democracy Project youth summit (provided)