Evanston Police mistakenly detain Northwestern professor’s son, 13, after burglary

Susan Du, City Editor

An Evanston Police officer is under investigation this week after he handcuffed and detained the 13-year-old son of a longtime Northwestern professor while searching for a nearby burglar.

Medill Prof. Ava Thompson Greenwell was at home Thursday morning when she saw police slap handcuffs on her son Diwani, an honor roll student who is about to begin 8th grade at Chute Middle School. When she demanded to know what was happening, an officer told her Diwani matched the description of a burglary suspect reported to be a “black male wearing blue cargo shorts.”

Diwani was released when the burglary victim told police they had detained the wrong person. Unsatisfied with the level of description and convinced the incident was racially motivated, Greenwell decided to take action.

“About to file a complaint with the Evanston Police Dept who handcuffed my son in front on his own house alleging he fit the description,” the Medill professor of 19 years tweeted Thursday afternoon.

Greenwell claimed the first officer on the scene did not immediately identify himself as police and that he failed to effectively communicate with her throughout the process.

She also said police presented an “excessive show of force” by placing Diwani in handcuffs while he was surrounded by “at least five officers.” In an interview with WGN, Diwani said there were nine officers on the scene.

“I was thinking the whole time in my head, do they really need nine cops for one 13-year-old boy?” he said in the interview, which aired Friday.

In response to Greenwell’s complaint, EPD is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether the handcuffing officer acted appropriately during the incident, according to a statement released Friday.

“It is officers’ perception that they were following protocol and using their discretion in detaining and handcuffing the youth for (identification),” EPD spokesman Perry Polinski said.

The officer who handcuffed Diwani apologized for the misunderstanding, but Greenwell said she believes his “half-hearted” apology is not enough.

“In the end the whole process probably didn’t last more than 10 minutes, but it was the worst 10 minutes of my life as a parent, and for my son I’m sure it was also a very scary encounter,” Greenwell said.

For the local African American community, Diwani’s experience and his mother’s public outcry has become a rallying point against racial profiling. George Mitchell, president of the Evanston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Greenwell family has inspired others to come forward with similar experiences.

“It’s the perception that creates the reality,” Mitchell said. “If black people feel they’re being profiled and stopped unnecessarily and being mistreated, it doesn’t make any difference what the data shows. The perception is the reality.”

After Greenwell contacted Mitchell for advice, the Evanston NAACP endorsed the police investigation into the officer’s conduct. Greenwell said she plans to speak about the issue on Wednesday before the Evanston City Council as well as the city’s Human Services Committee. She has also invited friends and neighbors — particularly those who share similar experiences of alleged profiling — to join her at the civic center.

Greenwell’s son was not available for comment on Saturday. The Medill professor said she didn’t want her son to be “over-exposed” to the media as a result of the incident, citing Diwani’s reluctance to attend a football game with friends on Friday because “he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”

No arrests have been made in the initial burglary case as of Saturday afternoon, Polinski said.