New Series ‘We Are Witnesses’ Explores Criminal Justice in Chicago

A new short film series featuring the voices of Chicagoans debuts Thursday.

“We Are Witnesses: Chicago” explores the nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness through the narratives of Chicagoans who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

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The series was created by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that primarily covers the criminal justice system as well as immigration.

“We felt that Chicago was a city that needed a better criminal justice conversation. There are a lot of strong feelings in the city about how criminal justice works and people don’t agree,” said Carroll Bogert, president of the Marshall Project.

Chicago is the second installment of the “We Are Witnesses” series. The first debuted in 2018 with a focus on New York City.

Each narrative is told in the style of a vignette from different narrators, an approach that aims to get viewers to see things outside of the traditional victim-offender narrative, Bogert said.

“There’s going to be somebody in the series who maybe looks like you or kind of thinks like you,” Bogert said. “There’s going to be somebody in the series who doesn’t look like you, or think like you, and that’s the world we live in,” she said. “We hope that it will engender some empathy, some willingness to listen to other points of view to see that there are strong feelings on the issue and in the city.”

Among those featured in the film are Dr. Carrie Steiner, a former Chicago police officer who now works as a clinical psychologist, and Xavier McElrath-Bey, senior advisor and national advocate of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Steiner was a CPD officer for 13 years before changing career paths. While on the force, she experienced trauma and noticed that her colleagues were struggling to talk about things they’d experienced on the streets.

“I saw myself and other [CPD officers] change in negative ways,” she said. In her time on the force, 18 CPD police officers died by suicide. The suicide rate for Chicago police officers is higher than the national average, according to reporting by WBEZ.

Steiner now works as a clinical psychologist. In 2010, she founded the First Responders Wellness Center, a resource for first responders, members of law enforcement and veterans that specializes in intervention techniques. 

“As someone who was in the system and charged as an adult I recognize [now] that I was not treated like a child,” said McElrath-Bey.

He was 13 years old when he was charged as an adult for the gang-related murder of 14-year-old Pedro Martinez. McElrath-Bey was sentenced to 25 years in prison and spent 13 years behind bars before he was released. Since then, McElrath-Bey has made it his mission to change on behalf of his victim. While in prison, he earned his bachelor’s degree. He has championed causes such as ending life without parole sentences for youth across the U.S., and seeks to amplify the voices of youth that are incarcerated. He also works with young people in Chicago to help them avoid the criminal justice system.

Other voices in the film include Nathaniel Pendleton Sr. and Cleopatra Cowley, the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was killed in January 2013 while hanging out with friends in a Kenwood park.

“We Are Witnesses: Chicago” premieres on Thursday, Sept. 12 at the Harold Washington Library at 6 p.m. Find more information about the event here.

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Janice Jackson: Trauma is a ‘Fact of Life’ for Many CPS Students

Trial to Begin in 9-Year-Old’s Killing That Shocked Chicago

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