It’s late morning at the Cook County Circuit Court Building in Skokie. In one of the small courtrooms along the broad center hallway a few people sit quietly in clusters on wooden pews, waiting for their cases to be called.

Near the front of the room a black Chicago cop is lying back in his seat, legs stretched out, arms crossed. He has a shaved head and thick shoulders, and he’s wearing an elegant suit. He watches the judge through heavy-lidded eyes, occasionally rolling his head sideways and staring hard at the two young men he arrested months before on drug charges.

The public defender and prosecutor start talking in front of the bench, and suddenly the cop gets up and strides down the aisle toward the door, apparently having realized his case will be continued. Everyone sitting in the back of the room watches him approach, including the two young men and a small, slight black kid who looks like he’s about 15. The cop locks eyes with the kid and then, in a motion so quick it could almost be mistaken, slices his thumbnail across his throat and crooks a finger.

The kid follows him into the hallway. He’s been sitting with a friend, slumped forward, arms resting on his legs. He’s accused of possessing an illegal gun, but he says it wasn’t his, even though it was found in a jacket that belonged to him.

He isn’t gone long. He slides back into his seat and slumps forward again. A middle-aged black woman sitting behind him touches his back and asks what the cop wanted. The kid whispers, “He said next time he sees me on the street he’s gonna put somethin’ on me.”

The woman sits upright and whispers angrily to no one in particular, “And there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”

Later the kid’s public defender, a thin, middle-aged white man, tells him the prosecutor is willing to offer three years probation if he pleads guilty. The defender says he thinks he can win the case if the kid wants to go to trial, though he could get 18 months in prison if he loses.

The defender disappears, and the kid sits down hard next to his friend and slowly shakes his head. He finally says he’s going to plead guilty. His friend’s eyes widen, and he whispers sharply that then he’ll have a record for the rest of his life.

“They got a 98 percent conviction rate at Skokie,” the kid whispers back. “Why should I take 18 months inside when I can be on the street with just probation?” He shakes his head again and says glumly, “He says he can win in court, but he’s only been here a week. He just wants to make a name for himself off me.”