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A community conversation with the EPD

Yesterday, Evanston Cradle to Career's Advocates for Action team, coordinated by Kimberly Holmes-Ross, held another of their "Saturday Morning Community Coffees," which are co-hosted by Radio La Difference every Saturday at 10 a.m. on EC2C's Facebook page.

The coffee-and-conversation series began in early June, with a tentative schedule through August, addressing topics such as normalizing mental heath issues in the Black community, Black fathers, racial equity, bringing a school to the 5th ward, and D65 and D202's plans for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Yesterday, the group tackled the hot topic of policing in Evanston, with guests EPD Chief Demitrous Cook and members of EPD's Problem Solving Team, Officers Tosha Wilson, Adam Howard, and Sgt. Scott Sophier.

Advocates and EPD discussed community policing, over-policing, defunding the police, and how the EPD addresses mental health within the department.

Here's a transcript of the conversation (slightly edited for length and clarity).

Marquise Weatherspoon

We're dealing with unprecedented times and everyone's mental state is a little unstable. How do you deal with the mental unrest of your fellow officers? What's the process for mental evaluation?

How do you guys do that?

Chief Demitrous Cook

Since Covid, we adjusted our work schedule to allow officers to have relief time or time off so they can destress, have time with their families, and not be so worried about things that are going on in the department, which are unprecedented.

In addition, Evanston is the only town around that has provided police officers the amount of relief time off that we do. All we ask is that they be on call. So we switched to a 12-hour shift, they're off seven days in a row once a month, and that provides them relief. There are other avenues for more serious stress issues. We have peer services within the department where officers can go to other officers to help them destress or problem solve some of their personal issues. The city also has a cops program that we can send people to for evaluations.

When we see a situation where an officer has a number of complaints, or some worrying behaviors, I have the authority to send him to get evaluated. We keep a close eye and make sure to utilize this service.

Kimberly Holmes-Ross

Is there a self-screen, because if an officer is having a bad day, that could be a bad day on the streets. Is there something on a daily basis so officers can check in with themselves or someone else?

Chief Cook

It's every officer's duty, not only the supervisors, to intercede in what could be perceived as negative behavior or behavior that could be detrimental to the progress of the police department. It's my job to look at officers, and their job to look at me. That's what keeps us in check. We do do that a lot. Police officers have the same problems as everyone else in the world, and we want to monitor that. We have domestic issues, financial issues, you name it; if it's in the world, we have it, and we try to be aware of each others' situations so we can provide the proper health care and assistance.

Bettye Cohns

There's a perception in our community that people of color, especially Black people, are targeted more often for doing the same things as other groups of people. Officer Wilson, I understand that you grew up in the 5th ward. Is it your perception as well that people in 5th ward are targeted more often than people on the north side of Evanston, on the south side of Evanston, and if so, why do you think that is?

Officer Tosha Wilson

I was raised in the 2nd ward but spent a lot of time in the 5th ward. I do not think we over-police on purpose, but I do believe there are underlying issues when it comes to power, economics, education, things that are stacked against us that cause police to respond to certain situations.

So do I think it's more than the south end? No. More than near Haven? Absolutely. Because I think that how we live, the money we have, when people are powerless the system is set up for us to respond to those circumstances.

So do we have more shootings in the 5th ward compared to Central Street? Absolutely. I believe that there are several levels of why we over-police in certain communities, and that's why I believe we have to hit so many things on so many different angles to make that stop.

We aren't calling ourselves to that community. My family members call the police, people you know call the police. I think if we can somehow fight the system as far as giving people more access, more power, then we can fix this to where police officers aren't needed in certain communities.

Bettye Cohns

So we need to look at our systems and make sure our systems are more equitable and that people have more opportunities in underserved communities to decrease the amount of policing that's required there.

Tosha Wilson

Absolutely. I mean, someone was comparing Evanston to Wilmette. I mean, we can do that, but people in Wilmette have money. People in Wilmette have resources. So the need to have a gang-related activity is less because people join gangs for power, people join gangs because family structures are broken. There are so many underlying issues that cause us to over-police certain communities. It's not because this is where I want to be, it's because people are saying, 'we need you to come help now,' and that doesn't always happen in other communities. So there's levels to this and it's definitely there, but we have to attack from the bottom up.

Glenn Mackey

What do you and the fellow officers view about defunding the police department? Do you guys have a different understanding, or are we on the same page?

Chief Cook

I think we're on the same page, but from our side I think we need more funding, for training and things of that nature. But I take it that defunding the police means taking a critical look at budgetary resources that are allocated to the police department from public money--and let's make no doubt about it we are funded by the public--and how the public wants to utilize that money creates public value in my estimation.

So taking a critical look at our budget and being efficient in the utilization of these public funds and defund any perceived excess of funds--whether it's a program that's not needed or that the public doesn't value any more and putting that money in a way that helps stop over-policing, minimizes the negative interactions between police and the public. So putting funds where they can be better utilized.

For instance, mental health. When I first became a police officer, we did very little with the mentally ill, other than transport them to mental health facilities that no longer exist. So it's putting resources into other avenues, social services, and things of that nature.

Glenn Mackey

I guess you're saying it would affect the immediate needs of the Black community if defunding the police department would happen?

Chief Cook

There's different law enforcement needs in different communities. There are different needs in north Evanston versus the 5th, 2nd, 8th wards. And I think that defunding the police would create a reduction in police officers to deal with specific things. And it all boils down to service delivery: what does the public want in terms of service delivery? Do you want a detective to be able to follow up on a theft of some of your property? Do you want the police to be able to deal with gang violence and shootings and things of that nature? So it's really about what the people want and how they should fund it.

The City of Evanston is part of traditional law enforcement that has been negative to the public in America for God knows how long--probably since 1845 when the Boston police department was founded--so I think the revamp needs to look at the whole system, not just law enforcement, but the educational system, the higher educational system, the health care system, because all of these systems have devalued our community.

Kimberly Holmes-Ross

I want to talk about community policing, because a lot of times we think about police and we think punitive, so i want to talk about some great things that are happening with community policing and maybe some things we'd like to see happen community policing. Officer howard who has a great porgram and does a lot of community stuff -- we see him everywhere.

Officer Howard has a great program and does a lot of community stuff, we all see him everywhere.

Officer Adam Howard

It's very important for the public to understand that our priority is to develop positive relationships with the community we serve. We heavily rely on the public's assistance in identifying quality-of-life issues and working together to solve problems. I think that our police department has been very innovative in terms of our partnership with the community because we understood the importance of eliminating the barrier between the police department and the Black community. We saw that there was a need for mentoring in the community for young Black men, so we've had programs to support and ment

or young Black men. We've seen it with Tosha Wilson's program STAR [for middle-school girls]. I think that if we just continue to find ways to listen to different perspectives, such as in Citizens Police Academy where you get a deeper insight into the operations of the police department, I think that we can find ways to work together and head in a direction that is progressive.

Kimberly Holmes-Ross

I'm glad you mentioned Citizens Police Academy. It gives you good insight into what goes on.

And Sgt. Scott Sophier is working directly with me with engagement with our seniors.

Sgt. Scott Sophier

A couple of years ago, officer Enjoli Daley, who is also in our unit, was instrumental in restarting the Explorer Program that takes Evanston youth 14-18 years of age and allows them to come and interact with the police department. We meet twice a month on Wednesdays, though that's been on hold with Covid, and we teach the young men and women about all the different facets of the police department itself and how we interact with the community. We really try to teach life skills, job skills, volunteering in the community.

Part of what we did with Covid--I reached out and was put in touch with Kim and we are trying to see if there's something our Explorers can do volunteering in the community during this time. Can we work with seniors, check on them, do things to brighten up their day?

We're doing virtual bingo with seniors and they're earning some prizes. So some of our explorers are going to go out and deliver their prizes. It's one small way in which we can contribute.

The program is dedicated to Evanston youth who at a minimum have an interest in learning about law enforcement or are looking to go into it as a career. If a member is part of the Explorers for two years they earn preferential points on the police test when they're 21 years old. We think it's a really great way to engage Evanston youth to become Evanston police officers. We talk a lot about the issues going on in the community and where there's a perception, rightfully so at times, that some officers who are not from Evanston or who aren't familiar with how Evanston works, it's really great to have the opportunity to have kids from this community potentially grow up to work here and have that understanding, just like Officer Wilson does, and other officers who grew up here too.

Tosha Wilson

In the STAR program (Skills To Achieve Results), we work with middle-school girls. Our pilot program was as Chute. We had 12 girls and we'd sit and talk about life as young women growing up, as Black women growing up, and just how sometimes we need to be able to express to each other how we feel emotionally, spiritually, everything.

These middle-school kids have a lot on them that we're ignoring, so to have that time after school where they're just decompressing, we eat, we do activities, but it's focused around our emotional wellbeing and striving to be leaders in the community. There's a lot to it. It was kind of kicked back because the district didn't want police officers in schools, so we weren't able to do it this past school year. But. we will be reassessing and trying to go forward with that because it was very important for their growth.

Kimberly Holmes-Ross

Middle school is tough, so Officers Howard and Wilson, I appreciate your mentorship.

Daphne Dortch

For all officers, in light of what happened to George Floyd, have any of you been in the position where a fellow officer was abusing his power? If so, how did you react to that, and what was the outcome?

Chief Cook

I came up in an era of policing when it was pervasive, where violence on citizens went unchecked. But there was a certain population of police officers, even back. in the early 80s and late 70s, that wouldn't tolerate it and would call that officer out. And that is what is being asked of police officers today: the duty to intercede.

That is one of the tenets that is being proposed in the Justice for Policing Act. Officers who witness wrongdoing by other police officers must step in and say something. I've always been that kind of police officer that would step in and say something, but I've always tried to be fair with the public. and that's what I want now. We got a long history of that here since 1983 when Chief William H. Logan, Jr. (Evanston's first police chief) started community policing in Evanston. We got over 40 years of good, clean community policing and advocacy in this town and I want to enhance that any way I can.

Tosha Wilson

As the only female police officer on this feed, I don't see people using or overusing their power, not in Evanston. I've seen it in other situations--when we go into Chicago it's a different story. But I will say sometimes as a woman, the whole sympathy/empathy thing seems like weakness when there's a little male ego going on and so I think what EPD has allowed us is to all have a voice with each other.

We have debriefings so if something were to occur and if we felt like, 'you should have handled that a little bit differently,' we are able to give each other clear opinions, like 'I didn't like the way you did this, 'or 'Don't push me out the way to think you're protecting me.'

We were all sitting around watching the George Floyd video in anger. That's not something I've experienced, but I've experienced, you know, me being a woman, bringing a calmer approach to things. I'm able to say things and our fellow officers hear us.

Adam Howard

I was appalled and disgusted by what happened in Minneapolis, and I can speak for our other officers--we do not excuse or condone that behavior. I think we have a relatively good relationship with the Evanston community. In terms of interceding when a police officer is abusing his power, I personally have not witnessed something like that in my career, however, if something like that was to take place, it's incumbent upon me to put it in line. We have to be fair and just and treat people with respect and I can speak for officers on this chat: if we see that kind of behavior, we put it in line.

Scott Sophier

I've been a police officer here for 17 years. I can't say I've ever seen it when it's been an absolutely punitive abuse of power. But we brought up issues earlier with regard to mental health, and there are a lot of mental health issues in Evanston.

Officers, while encounter people in crisi, and I mean per shift multiple times--and that expounds per day, per week, per month--what we've done over the last several years is we've sent our officers to a one-week class called 'crisis intervention training.' It's trying to expose officers to people who are experiencing drug addiction or mental health issues and how to treat that, and how to handle ourselves in those instances.

So while I haven't seen the abuse that you're asking about, what I think all of us have experienced is officers who may not recognize someone that's in crisis or someone whose anger level is very high. With the right person to talk to--or listen, which is equally as important, to try and bring the anger down, and bring that issue--most of the time, the overwhelming time--can be resolved without force. And that's what I have seen: officers who think they might have the ability to have a better rapport with someone, especially going through this training, have been able to step in and say, 'You know what, let me talk to this person real quick. Let me see if I can make a connection and bring that level down.'

That's something I don't think was there in the past. I'm sure to any onlookers it would look like the police were either not respectful or handling things too aggressively, whereas now there is a huge push, and there has been long before George Floyd, and here in Evanston we've been trying to work on deescalation, and showing our empathy, and having citizens understand that we don't want to be involved in anything like that, anything remotely close. We just want to resolve things peacefully, be able to do our job, and go home to our families too.

Kimberly Holmes-Ross

I think it's so important to connect with the community. You're officers, but you're humans too. You live and work in this community, you care about this community. We really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and feelings on this subject.

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