Child Suspects: Thin Ice for Cops

Blacks say Chicago police relied on stereotypes, not facts, in child murder case.

Remember the two black Chicago boys, ages 7 and 8, who made headlines for being accused of killing a girl for her bike?

Well, contrary to what many expected, they weren't convicted and hustled off to jail. They were set free after a routine lab check proved they weren't involved.

But in the 13 days since the boys were sent home, Chicago has continued to wrestle with the aftermath. Police are under growing criticism - especially from the minority community - for shoddy handling of the case. Claiming that police carelessness has allowed a pedophile to run free, African-American leaders charge that Chicago's mostly white police force is failing to serve its minority neighborhoods.

In a broader sense, the case that seemed to confirm the nation's fears about younger and younger children becoming ever more violent has turned into a cautionary tale about police, the media, and the public coming to hasty conclusions based on fears and racial and age stereotypes.

"We're all angry about crime - and we have a right to be," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. "But one consequence is we have this unquestioning mentality that says, 'Clobber those criminals.' We think, 'Seven- and eight-year-old black kids? Yeah, they probably killed the girl.' "

In fact, the case comes at a time when the public perceives that youths are much more violent than they actually are.

The backlash in Chicago includes mounting pressure for police to videotape interrogations - a move they've long resisted. The two boys were questioned without a parent or lawyer present and were charged based on what police described as a confession. Yet there was no record of the conversation. A city alderman has proposed a requirement that police videotape all interviews with children under 10.

Experts say videotaping interrogations of suspects of all ages insulates police against charges of coercion. Police in San Diego, Philadelphia, Anchorage, and many other cities use videotape. Critics of Chicago police say they're avoiding such a move because of their hardball tactics.

Police have opposed videotaping on the grounds that interrogation techniques that are legal, such as lying to a suspect, wouldn't play well to a jury and could result in lower conviction rates.

Now the refusal to videotape may be getting them in trouble.

Last week, lawyers for a 15-year-old Chicago boy challenged his 1994 murder conviction, which was based on a confession. The youth was found guilty even though a bloody hand print and footprint at the scene were not his. It turns out he was interrogated by the same detective who recently questioned the seven- and eight-year-olds. Police spokesmen are not commenting on the case.

TO be fair, interrogating children is particularly tricky, experts say. "Big tough cops interrogating little kids is a worst-case scenario," says James Garbarino, a child-psychology professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. If police are even slightly intimidating - consciously or unconsciously - children are likely to say exactly what interrogators want them to say.

Police departments nationwide are also being criticized on racial grounds. "The police are part of a culture that views blacks in racially negative terms - less intelligent, less hard working, more violent," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He says that bias leads to everything from Chicago police falsely charging the boys to racial profiling - a practice in which police pull people over based at least in part on their race.

One study found that blacks driving on the New Jersey Turnpike were more than four times as likely as whites to be stopped. Most police departments deny any conscious targeting of blacks.

While the Chicago case has highlighted residents' concerns over police treatment and society's perception of blacks, it also underscores a growing uneasiness about youth violence. Experts explain that violent crime by youths has gotten more lethal because of the wide availability of guns. But in fact, youth-violence rates are actually falling.

Mr. Sterling notes an odd dichotomy in society's perception of children that may explain the wariness. "We worship kids until they're 10 or 12, and then suddenly they become this unfathomable other who ... may be dangerous or even violent."

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