What's Cooking? An interview with Evanston's New Chief of Police
I recently sat down with Demitrous Cook, Evanston's new police chief, in his spacious office at the Evanston Police Department. I'd planned to ask Chief Cook mostly about himself and his life ... But he was generous with his time--and his opinions--so we talked about a lot more too.
Chief Cook was sworn in at the Lorraine Morton Civic Center on January 2, following the retirement, after nine years, of Chief Richard Eddington.
Cook began his career in 1981 as a police supervisor with the Northwestern University Police Department, joined EPD in 1984 as a patrol officer, rose up the ranks to Deputy Chief before he left in 2010 to assume the position of police chief at the south-suburban Glenwood police department.
DE: I’ll ask you a little bit about policing. But I want to ask you about things I think people might want to know about you. I want to know why so many people were so excited about your return to Evanston. Everyone seems to know you.
DC: Well, I was here for 27 years. They know me. Most of the people. Not only did I have Beat 77, which is a Black neighborhood ... well was a black neighborhood.
DE: Is that the 5th Ward?
DC: Yeah, that’s one of them neighborhoods that’s under gentrification. But I also had the downtown beat and the Central Street Beat.
DE: When I posted on my Facebook page that you were the new chief, one after the other person was so excited. And most of those people were African American. And I'm curious why that is.
DC: Well, I’m going to tell you what it was. I wasn’t arresting them for bullshit. And I was one of the people, you know, helping people.
DC: Running to baby showers, you know, going to family funerals, and things like that. And some of them were unsavory characters. So in the police department, a lot of cops took that like, 'Oh, what are you doing talking to him?' 'Well, what are you doing with her?' You know, if it was a girl, 'Oh, he must be having a relationship with her.' Or if it was some guy that’s been to prison or something like that, 'Oh, he must be telling that drug dealer something.' You know, that kind of message. Which is totally false.
I’ve always been the kind of person that believed in being righteous, you know. I make mistakes, but I’m not a crook. Never have been.
DE: Okay, so where did you grow up?
DC: Altgeld Gardens Public Housing Projects, south side of Chicago. 130th Street.
DE: Tell me a bit about your childhood.
DC: Well, I had a mom and a dad, you know. We didn’t look at it as public housing. It was just a neighborhood, you know. It’s the furthest south you can go in Chicago. So, it wasn’t like what people would think a public housing project was like.
DE: Yeah, it’s low.
DC: It’s low-rise little townhouses. My dad worked at Scotland Food Company. My mom was a housekeeper for Gloria Jackson, Dr. Gloria Jackson. She ran the clinic in Altgeld Gardens. And she was the president of Jackson Park Hospital. And she lived in Hyde Park. So, my mom would go to her house and, you know, work with her kids and clean her house and all of that.
So, I went to school, and when I was 15, my dad died. He just fell dead, had a heart attack. And he was 39 years of age.
DE: And do you have siblings?
DC: Yes, I got two brothers and a sister. They’re all younger. We all stair-stepped. I’m the oldest. I’m 60, my brother is 59, another brother is 58.
DE: So, you were the oldest child when your dad died and you were 15.
DC: Yes. So, what happened, Dr. Larry Hawkins, he used to be the athletic basketball coach at Carver High School. Dr. Hawkins left Carver High School and went to the University of Chicago and started this program called the Upward Bound Program.
So, I would ride over there to the University of Chicago and you know they had counselors, like my counselor was Judge [Michael] Stuttley. He just retired. He was head of the Cook County Juvenile Court Division. And James Townsend who owns several State Farms, he’s retired. He lives out in Oak Park. These guys were my counselors in the Upward Bound Program. It was a mix of athletics, classroom where you were lacking, you know in your education, like math. So, Mr. Townsend taught us math and Judge Stuttley taught us reading and stuff like that.
So, I was over there my whole high school career. We rode the bus over there.
And it became a paid program. But Dr. Hawkins, he wouldn’t give us our check because he knew what we was going to do. We was going to go out and spend it. So, he would hold our checks, all of them, to the end of the summer and give them to our mom. And my mom managed me with spending. And his philosophy was, 'I’m going to teach you how to save money.'
So, in my senior year, he withheld all my checks for the whole summer and when I got ready to go off to college, I had my own money to buy underwear, clothing, and stuff like that to go off. So, he was a person that, that’s where I learned ethics. He was like, it’s better to tell the truth and get punished than to tell a lie and go down the drain. So, I always believed that if I did something wrong, apologize and tell the truth and then you can move forward.
I learned about becoming a man and all of that stuff. You know, we would have group sessions. Cause a lot of us, if we didn’t have dads, some of us just didn’t have dads. In my case, my dad just happened to pass away.
So, it was a good thing for young Black boys in the projects, because one part of the projects was Black Gangster Disciples. And on the other half was Black P Stones. So, on the way to school, you got to walk through both sectors to get to the school. All they wanted you to do was beat your chest, show the gang sign, and you can go on through. And when they built the new Carver High School, I had to walk like maybe two miles to get to it. So, you’re walking through these little territories you know.
DE: So did you have to pick which gang signs to use?
DC: You just did it with whatever neighborhood, you knew which neighborhood you was in so you learned how to do it in both neighborhoods.
DE: And were you ever tempted to join a gang? Did you ever join a gang?
DC: No, I never joined a gang, but I understood how to survive in an environment where there's gang activity and it's violence, you know. You do what you got to do to get through that neighborhood. I played football during football season and I ran track during track season.
So, I was always busy. Now my brother wasn’t so fortunate. You know, he got involved in gang activity. So, it was just really a matter of what you want to do. And how you want to focus your life. But he was able to pull his self out of that and join the military.
DE: When your dad died, was money a big issue? How did your mom manage?
DC: My mom, she had a job you know. I don’t know what her salary was, but I told you she was a housekeeper. For Dr. Jackson.
And my mom got us everything we ever wanted. We had nice clothes. We got stuff for Christmas. She prepared all of us, you know, if we had the opportunity to go to college, like I took the ACT and all that. My sister did also, and she got accepted to Lincoln University. My mom had a thousand dollars saved up for her to put in a bank account when she got to school. We had the big trunks, the big ole trunks.
DE: Yes, yes.
DC: Full of stuff to go off to school with. So, it was a struggle for her, but we got what we needed. My dad worked so we, when I got into college, we got social security checks.
DE: And I know that when you were sworn in, I know your mom put your badge on. What did that mean to you?
DC: Well, my mom is a heavy-handed lady. You know, she don’t care how old we are, you’re going to answer to her. So, like when stuff happens on the news involving police, she calls me. That’s what she do. She’ll call me and say, 'Why did that cop shoot that man?' or whatever the situation was. And then she’ll say something to the affect like, 'You better not be out there doing that.' So to this day we still have this accountability.
DE: She keeps you honest.
DC: Yeah, and she tell it like it is. If she think you’re doing something, my mom really know us well. If she think we’re involved in something, she’ll call you on it.
DE: Who is your role model and why?
DC: Them two guys James Townsend and Judge Michael Stuttley. Them are my two role models. They reeled me in. There ain’t nothing negative about them. You know, they believe in working. They honest. And I was just ... last week James Townsend's mom passed away ... and I was there. And I just watched how he was the oldest guy in his family, how he was like the leader of his family during that bad time you know.
DE: So, he’s a leader and somebody you look up to ... And where did you go to college?
DC: I went to SIU in Carbondale. It’s the greatest university in the world.
DE: And what did you study?
DC: Studied law enforcement.
DE: What led you to a career in law enforcement?
DC: Well, I had Officer Hawthorn, Abraham Hawthorn. He was our police officer in our school. He was a Chicago policeman. But he was like, 'Man, go to school and be a policeman.' He would always tell us take the Chicago police test. So, when I got to down in Carbondale, I was undecided. My first classes were general studies classes. And then I found out they had a law enforcement program on campus. So, he came into my mind and I got in law enforcement. All because, I believe, because of Mr. Abraham Hawthorn.
DE: And if you weren’t doing what you do now, what else would you have done?
DC: I don’t know. You know, that’s like trying to change your fate. And you can’t change your fate.
DE: This is your fate?
DC: This is my fate right here. I could be retired. I got two pensions. My kids all went to college. They all out of school except for my youngest baby. But I don’t know what else to do. You know, this is my life.
DE: Is this your passion?
DC: Yes. And these police officers here, they some really good police officers. You know, everything ain’t going to always go right with these cops. My job is to straighten it out when it’s wrong. And to admit when it’s wrong and hopefully the situation don’t get to a point where it’s punitive on the citizens. I want to rid the police department of civil litigation. And I want to get the cops the tools they need to go out and make good decisions. You know, when I was in grade school on your report card it used to be a box that said 'self-control.' So that’s still a problem today. How do we control ourselves and give the public the best service that we can give.
DE: And under pressure.
DC: And under pressure. You know I, no matter what the citizen says to me, I should have self-control. I should be able to take that pressure and still make decisions. Now, I have a lady that I’ve been working with. Her name is Dr. Margaret Spencer. She’s the head of psychology at the University of Chicago. She’s my friend. And some of her research is built upon, as a police officer you maybe at a volatile call with a lot of cussing, a lot of disturbance. Things that get you upset. Because police officers are just like anybody else, we get upset. And then 10 minutes later I got to go a mile away to a lady that may just have a suspicious-person call. So, I’m taking that baggage from one call to the next call. So, her thing is, how do we de-escalate ourselves, our own mental perspectives and negatives from that call to the next call. She wants to do some surveys here. So, we’re going to be moving in that direction.
DE: So, one of the things you think is most important to focus on is self-control of police officers as they go from one call to the next?
DC: Right. Not only that, but there's an element of danger in this profession. You know, we got to admit that. But, what’s the percentage of the people that’s going to perpetuate that violence against you? I think the justice department came out a long time ago in the ‘90s with a view of it. It's called 97-3 targeting. That when you look at gang eradication. And it basically says that 97 percent of the population is on your side.
DC: And that three percent of the population is the criminal. So it’s a constant effort with just three percent of the population.
DE: Do you think it’s a hard time to be a police officer and to be a police chief right now?
DC: Yeah. I think it is. But that’s what makes it interesting.
DE: So, you’re not cowed by the challenge?
DC: No, I’m all for it. Because in order to succeed in these times, you have to tell the truth. Plain and simple. If a policeman makes a mistake, you got to admit it to the public. Don’t wait till you paying them a big lump sum and then got to fend it off. Be up front. We got enough brainpower here. We got people in this place that collectively we should be able to look at a situation and say that ain’t industry standard law enforcement practice. What we have to do is not be afraid to tell the public the truth when we made a mistake. Now, if we made a mistake, we acknowledge it. We do discipline. It ain’t always got to be punitive. I think a mix is good, a mix of punitive and education.
DC: And then apologize to the public and move on. What’s the big deal for me to look in a mirror or the camera and say that ain’t what we subscribe to? We made a mistake and we going to correct it. And we got to look at training, we got to look at whether it's a policy violation. If so, then we got to change it.
DE: But so, with the Lawrence Crosby case, people are asking why didn’t the City apologize for that?
DC: Well, you know when the Lawrence Crosby case came out, I was three years, four years back in Glenwood. Now, let me tell you something about Chief Eddington. Chief Eddington is a highly respected police chief. Not only in Evanston but anywhere you go. It’s always easy to look back in hindsight and Monday-morning quarterback the decisions of a chief. I wasn’t here, I don’t know why that happened. But I have the utmost respect for Chief Eddington. He is a good friend of mine.
All I can tell you what I would do when the ball come my way. Can I look into the
future? No. But my thing is I’m hoping that with my education and experience and with the backing of the great police command staff we got here, we could make the right decision. And if it was the wrong decisions made in a situation involving our police officers, we going to do the right thing and take the right action to correct if it was a deficiency in the operation.
DE: Talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a Black man who is a police officer and a police chief. So sometimes you’re wearing the uniform. And sometimes you’re wearing street clothes.
DC: My first encounter with the police, I was driving my mom’s car. The policeman stopped me and said, 'You’re a negligent driver.' I had my license for like six months. I got it when I was 16 in high school and he said, 'I’m going to have to write you a ticket.' And I said, okay. I said, 'Well how much is the ticket going to be?' He said, 'How much you got?' This is God's truth. And I went in my pocket, I had 16 dollars. I said, 'I got 16 dollars.' He said, 'Give me that.' He took the 16 dollars, walked back into his car, and sped off.
DE: For 16 dollars.
DC: That was my first experience with the police, Chicago Police. But you look at what that Chicago policeman did, and then you look at what the other Chicago policeman did in formulating my destiny, putting it in my mind to become a police officer. So, you got good and you got bad. You got to weed out the bad and move forward.
DE: And as a Black man in jeans and a t-shirt?
DC: Oh yeah. When I was in the drug enforcement administration, you know they got what’s called 'deconflation' now. And that’s where agencies let each other know if they doing some kind of covert operation within a particular area. They do that so that there's no bumping into each other and we be getting friendly fire. Well, when I in the drug enforcement administration they didn’t have that. So, I’m over here on 47th and Lake Park at the strip mall and we doing a deal. And the cop comes up pulls his gun on me. And, and it was a friendly deal between Chicago police and the DEA.
DE: They didn’t recognize you?
DC: Because I was Black.
DC: I was a Black guy with a gun. That’s why, you know, as a Black man in society, you have to be leery of those kind of things because people are reacting differently. They react different to a Black man with a gun versus a white man with a gun. And either one could be a threat. It’s just we’re more of a threat because we Black. And the topic of race is a burning subject we need to get out under the table and people need to admit wrong, not only with Black people, with Hispanics, with the American Indians and anybody else. The Jewish people that have been wronged. People need to admit and acknowledge that so we can move forward in America. This is a great country. But it’ll never reach its greatest potential under racism.
DE: I think when you are an officer and a Black person, you probably experience it in very specific ways because you’re both part of the structure and part of the target.
DC: I’ll give you the deal. There was a jewelry store on Central Street, not far from the post office.And I went in there. Now I had on plain clothes. I was a detective. And the lady looked at me and she started moving around, but I didn’t pay her no attention. What she had did was went under the counter and pressed the panic button. And the next thing I know, the Evanston police, the cops I work for, they there and I'm like what y'all doing? And they’re like, 'We just got a panic alarm.' And the girl felt real bad because then she finds out I’m a policeman.
DC: And the owner of the store comes out who knew me from walking the beat over there. He said, what happened? And she tells him why she pressed the button. Cause she looked at me, I had on an Army jacket, Black you know. So those kind of things -- getting traffic stops, petty traffic stops. When your probable cause is your license plate light was out. So what? You know, stop the guy, 'Hey sir, your license plate light is out. You promise to get it fixed and go on about your business?' You look at some of these issues with these traffic stops. They start out as traffic stops and then they turn into full-blown searches.
DC: Now, we need to start scrutinizing whether that’s justified or not. I’m not going to stop a guy over, let’s pick a prominent neighborhood. But somebody coming down Edgemere Court and 'Hey you didn’t stop at that stop sign.' 'Your license plate light is out.' 'Step out of the car.' Pat them down. 'I smell weed.' So what, we smell weed? Weed. The States Attorney ain’t even prosecuting weed. And then do a full-blown search and see what happens. That’s the kind of stuff--as police officers--that’s de-escalation to me. Don’t do it. And that ain’t hard to do you know. It’s enough criminals --
DE: Just focus on more of the --
DC: Real deal.
DE: -- dangerous stuff.
DC: So, my first deal was I said the citizens of Evanston need to be able to get off the street CTA train, walk to the bus stop not be harassed. Not be dodging bullets. So, I shifted some units down to saturate Howard Street. In three weeks, we got three or four guns. And now these ain’t conceal carry people, these is gang members down there on Howard Street carrying these guns. And we’ve had several incidents I’m sure you may know where the police officers out there doing a good job because they know I ain’t playing when it comes to doing the bogus stops.
But these guys ramming the police cars, you know, putting these cops in danger. I ain’t taking that. Now that’s the stuff we need to focus on and the public need to focus on that too. And understand that we ain’t perfect, we out there doing a good job and you need to recognize that instead of beating us down 100 percent of the time. I believe in that too. You know I believe --
DE: I think that’s really hard right now.
DC: But you know this is the deal, Evanston, they take a national agenda you know in terms of what’s wrong in law enforcement and putting it on Evanston. Now that’s okay, but to what extent? And to what issues is that a good fit in Evanston? Is it race? Yes. Is it not knowing when to de-escalate? Yes.
But when it’s a matter of community policing and networking? No. Because we the kings of that. We do a good job at that. So, I want to make what we do shine, and I want to work on the things that bring us into litigation, like this deal with Mr. Crosby, and fix it.
DE: What’s the hardest part of being a police officer?
DC: I think getting painted with the broad brush. You got good white cops, you know. When you make everything an issue of race, I think that’s bad, but that’s what black people have dealt with. The issue of race. So, now people are fighting back against that.When you see these young guys in these videos, you know, they really don’t trust the police. And they really are afraid of the police because of getting shot in the back 16 times. Running away, getting shot in the back. These is real issues that is causing a lot of problems. So, we need to fix this. We need registries to get rid of the bad cops. They can’t go leave one spot and a bad record and go to another job.
Do you know the Invisible Institute?
I was at a deal over there.