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Leon Mitchell: Officer and Mentor

"But back then and still today, there’s a saying at the police department. We call it the 97/3 rule. Ninety-seven percent of the population we work with are good, hardworking people, and just three percent cause the trouble."

This is Leon Mitchell. Leon was born in 1950 and moved to Evanston from the south suburbs in 1980. He was a police officer for the Evanston Police Department for 23 years, serving as patrol on the gang and drug suppression unit.

He retired as a sergeant and served as Dean of Students at Notre Dame High School for four years, while building his own company, Phoenix Security, which he now runs. He is a mentor for the young men at Curt's Cafe and is part of the Men's Group that is hosted by four men and attended by Curt's' male students one Monday a month.

Q: Why did you become a police officer?

A: I became a police officer because I was kicked around by police when I was growing up and I decided that I would do it myself and do it differently. I loved the Evanston community.

Q: What issues did you face during your time as an police officer?

A: We had horrific gang problems when I first came. But I give credit to Chief Logan [In 1984, Evanston native William Logan was appointed Evanston’s first African American Chief of Police]. He recruited African American officers who didn’t grow up in Evanston and didn’t have any allegiances. Our unit had a great camaraderie and felt we could really make a difference. We felt a personal stake in our work and we could see the impact it had on the community.

Q: Have the issues changed?

A: The problems then were similar to today’s, but now there are more guns and more killings. Back then, gangs were designated to different parts of Evanston and were mostly involved in selling drugs. Sometimes a beef between gangs would lead to a fight and then a homicide, but now there are other influences that increase that chance. Things are said on Facebook and other social media, insults and threats, and people end up dead. And today, it doesn’t matter what gang you’re in. There are no gang leaders now. And anyone who wants a gun can get one.

Q: What other factors contribute to violence in Evanston?

A: There’s still the challenge of dealing with the mentality of some young men who crave brands of gym shoes instead of craving knowledge. They want money and fame, and they want it right now. They’re following the wrong thing. Also, many young men become involved in violence because it’s the ultimate way to get credibility on the streets. There are some middle class young men who want street creds because they’re scared. But back then and still today, there’s a saying at the police department. We call it the 97/3 rule. Ninety-seven percent of the population we work with are good, hardworking people, and just three percent cause the trouble. The faces change, but the percentage stays the same.

Q: What’s your opinion of the Evanston Police Department today?

A: I think that the Evanston police department is one of the best supervised and progressive department in the state. In general I'm more of an old school (put guys on the streets who can develop information because people respect them). I’m not in love with the new task force model of policing.

Q: What can the community do to help reduce violence?

A: The biggest assistance we in the police department had back in my day was the Council of Elders. It was a group of African American fathers and mothers, some were the parents of gangbangers, some were parents of victims of gang violence. Many of the fathers themselves were ex-offenders. It was an incredible group of people. The group was called C.O.E POPS and C.O.E. MOMS, and the members wore green and white baseball caps. They would come out onto the streets at night to hotspots, to parties, to interrupt activities and to keep watch on what was going on. That generation got it under control. We just don’t seem to have that cohesion now.

Q: If you could fix one thing that contributes to violence, what would it be?

A: You get rid of guns, you get rid of the problem. But the Code of Omertà on Evanston's streets also has to be broken [Omertà literally means “manhood.” It refers to the idea of a man dealing with his own problems without the help of the government/police. It’s a term that’s become synonymous with the Mafia’s code of silence]. It’s also important to bring whites and African Americans together because violence is a by-product of racism.

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