Evanston's Human Services Committee met on Monday evening to review services currently provided by the Evanston Police Department in response to 911 calls, community services currently in place that address emergencies, alternative response models, and how to move toward defunding the EPD.
According to the agenda’s Memorandum, “the City Council is embarking on completely understanding the City programs, services, and resources that [are] currently available or used to respond to 911 calls for services that do not require a response from a sworn officer.”
EPD's Chief Cook, Evanston Fire Department's Chief Brian Scott, Evanston's victim advocates, the Evanston Public Library's social worker, Audrey Thompson of Heath and Human Services, and others, were on hand to provide information about the work they do so the committee could consider roles they could play if funds are reallocated from the EPD's budget.
Residents were allowed two minutes to address the topic.
Betsy Wilson spoke in favor of the City examining how police officers respond to 911 calls but also urged the city to address crimes at the root.
“I’m glad that you are looking at 911 calls but I do want to point out that we, as a country, have been working on reforming police from within since before Ferguson, but especially since Ferguson occurred. The evidence shows us that reform doesn’t change outcomes, it doesn’t reduce the racist effects nor does it reduce police violence,” said Wilson.
“In order to do that, we need to be moving resources out of the police department and into organizations, departments and services that address the root causes of crime,” said Wilson.
But not all residents agreed.
“I don’t think we should be demonizing the police department in Evanston. I believe there is a lot of good people that work there and none of the events that have taken place in other cities across the nation have occurred in Evanston. I just think we are overacting to something that doesn’t exist in Evanston the way that it exists in other locations,” said Mike Vasilko. "I don't appreciate the term defund when it comes to the police department."
Karen Courtright, a long-time Evanston activist on police reform and transparency, asked the Council to respect and heed the call for defunding from Evanston's young activists.
"Year after year we hear city officials say the youth are our future. These young people may lack decades of adult experience, but they're the ones that have the vision for how the world will work for them," she said. "We need to listen and be responsive to what it is they're saying."
Ald. Eleanor Revelle, 7, who chairs the committee, said the meeting was “just the beginning of what is going to be an ongoing discussion for many weeks, if not longer.”
Revelle said the city is looking into the idea of an “Alternative Emergency Response Service Model,” which was established about 30 years ago in Eugene, Ore. and is now being used in other parts of the country.
The idea behind the model, she explained, is that a majority of the calls made to 911 do not require the response of a sworn police officer but can be addressed through other resources, since many 911 calls pertain to non-criminal, non-violent situations.
"It's a two-person team, very often with a mental health professional and someone with a medical background," she said. "This kind of model gets the right people to the scene to provide the kinds of services and supports the individual needs."
Revelle said she hopes the Council considers whether such a model would be the right one for Evanston. "Would it help make us a safer, stronger community? Would it be a way for us to redirect funds from the police budget to human services and other needs in the community?” she asked.
EPD Chief Demitrous Cook said the City should to pay attention to the residents.
“My opinion is ‘What do the people want?’ and you all as aldermen and representatives of the people are working to give the public what you all think is best for the course of the city,” he said.
“My job is to operate the police department in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Public dollars are sacred dollars and the utilization of public dollars should bring public value. What we do in the police department should be creating public value for the money that is spent, so if we could do that in a more efficient way with the help of partnerships from other agencies, I like that, and I am not ashamed to say that” said Cook.
"We have six students from the WE Program and it's amazing what insights you can get from talking to these students," he said. "It's time, Evanston is being proactive, even though we're not having a lot of the issues they're having in a lot of other departments."
Cook said by looking at 911 calls one can see ways to reduce police response to focus more on community building, foot patrol, and more connection with youth. In 2019, EPD received nearly 40,0000 911 calls.
Training is a big portion of how the police department uses city funds. Of EPD's 148 officers, 89 have taken a 40-hour Critical Incident Training (CIT) course. Chief Cook would like all officers to eventually take the training.
“These officers are trained to deal with a number of incidents that need special training. We’ve had police officers talk people out of suicide because of their training. This is a big city and we have big city issues and we need to be as verse as possible in providing good clean police service in this town,” said Cook.
Deputy Chief Jody Wright said that CIT training helps officers deescalate a situation to get the person to the point where officers can safely hand them off to a paramedic, and that while the training is designed to deal with people in crisis it's useful in everyday situations as well.
Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9, said it's important to understand if officers are able to deescalate situations and deal with issues properly.
"Even with their training, it's not their profession," she said.
"Do you feel like the officers have the tools to get that person to the next place? You are able to calm down the situation right there, but people probably need long-term support…how do you go about doing that? What if you can't calm a person," Ald. Fleming asked the Deputy Chief.
“CIT training doesn't replace a mental health professional. It's a tool we use and has helped us deescalate and show empathy and then get them the treatment they need," Wright said. "Not every situation will these tools and techniques work and that is where we sometimes have to resort to physically taking someone in custody and transporting them to a hospital.”
Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5, said she was pleased that the Chief supports the will of the people in terms of defunding. She called on the Council to make a resolution showing its commitment to moving toward defunding.
But other aldermen asked for more time to consider the issue and establish what the term 'defunding' means.
“If we have an idea of what we mean by defunding, I’d say fine let’s go do it, but I think there is some confusion out there of what it means," said Ald. Judy Fiske, 1. "I'm confused about a statement right now. I think we have some homework to do first."
Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2, provided a definition of defunding the police by Rashawn Ray, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, which defines defunding as "reallocating, redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by local municipality.”
“It does not mean abolish policing,” said Braithwaite, explaining that it took him a while to grasp the concept.
"The activists invited me to a conversation to explore it and I personally had to get over that word. And when I stopped arguing and we got to a place where we were talking about it, I think that's where we are as a community," he said. "I'm committed to having a broader conversation, to having a meeting with my second ward residents and listening to them as we define it and as it relates to the budget."
Revelle agreed with Fiske.
"I'd like us to have some more conversations so we have a clearer idea of what our vision is, because I think there's such confusion in the community about what we mean by defund. We need to continue the conversation a bit longer before we get to articulating a resolution."
Rue Simmons pushed back.
"Ald. Braithwaite just gave a really coherent explanation as to what defunding is, and we've been having this conversation for some time. It seems that everyone on Council is supportive of the goals of defunding, It's the word that we're stuck on," she said. "We even have support from the Chief himself. So I think a statement of support is appropriate, understanding that we're working to the application of it. But the commitment is there on behalf of everyone."
Ald. Fleming said she was more concerned about getting the work done than making a statement.
"Because we're trying to get this done in a month and a half to be ready for budget time, I'd rather get through this and make some actual policy changes and budget allocations versus having staff spend time on a resolution," she said. "I think we just have to get the ball rolling and actually go ahead and defund or reallocate, whatever word people are comfortable with. My concern is getting the right response to people in need in our community."
Revelle ended the meeting asking residents to judge the committee by its actions.
“We are going to move as definitively as we can to come up with a program that will be part of the 2021 budget and that they will see that we are taking the actions they are really counting on us to take,” she said.
The committee encourages residents to email their public comments about defunding to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The committee will continue to discuss the issue during their next scheduled meeting on Monday, Aug. 17.