JOLIET — Joliet attorney Amy Melton is worried about the safety of youth when interacting with police, especially in light of cases of officer-involved shootings in the past year that have stirred national controversy and protests.
Melton, along with her husband Darrick, decided to form the AWARE Project, where law enforcement and legal professionals visit groups of young people to teach them how to interact with police safely and appropriately.
“We started talking about generating awareness and young people – particular teenagers and young adults – about how they can avoid getting shot basically. … How can they do their part to avoid that type of thing happening to them. It’s a serious concern,” Melton said.
A panel of speakers participating in the AWARE Project visited Washington Junior High School in Joliet on Thursday to talk to eighth-grade students.
A theme of the session was for students to take their issues with police officers who they believe to be abusing their authority to police departments or the court system — rather than in the streets, where they may get hurt or shot.
Melton said some police officers commit injustices, but said people shouldn’t argue or fight with those officers.
“Who has the gun? Who has the baton? Who has the Taser? Who can call for backup?” she asked.
Students were taught they must give their name, as well as any identification, if asked by a police officer. But they can deny permission for a search with no explanation.
Litricia Payne, Will County assistant public defender, asked students if the police officers searched them anyway, should they fight or submit to the search?
More than a dozen hands were raised agreeing to fight, but about 20 were raised to submit to a search. Payne said the latter was correct.
“The worst thing you can do is resist,” she said.
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, a former Joliet police officer, was at the panel and told students their best options against police misconduct was to file a police report or take the matter up in court. He urged them not to fight a police officer on the street because “even if you’re right, you won’t win on the street,” he said.
He said people often don't know why a police officer may approach and question them, and officers don’t have to explain why.
Joliet Police Lt. Dennis McWherter said police officers are not the bad guys.
“There’s some bad apples out there. … Don’t blame everybody,” he said.
Eighth-grade student Destiny Medrano said many people grow up thinking police are not there to help them, but Thursday’s presentation allowed students to “be more understanding of what’s going on.”
Oliver Prieto, another student, said he wished he learned more about his legal rights. He said he’s not afraid of the police.
“I’m not doing anything wrong … unlike other [people] who do something wrong, they got a reason to be scared,” Prieto said.