On May 26, Evanston’s Citizen Police Academy graduated its 33rd class. Since 1995, the CPA has sought to educate students about the challenges facing our community, the services that the police provide and the relationship between the citizens and the police. I was privileged to be a part of Class 33
Some came for professional reasons. Others were merely curious. But after 12 weeks, each of us left not just more sensitive and more alert than when we arrived, but profoundly moved by what we had seen and heard.
We met men and women, many surprisingly young, who see on a daily basis what many would prefer not to see and who told us what many do not want to hear. They serve and protect all of us who want service and protection.
We did not get to meet Horatio Caine or Mac Taylor or Jarek Wysoki, or, worse for some, Natalia Boa Vista, but we did get to hear from some very real officers who told us about all-too-real, all-too-disturbing, often all-too-sad stories of people at all stages of life who were engaged in conduct that was in some cases premeditated and; in others, simply sloppy or stupid.
And we heard officers speak from the heart. They spoke of budget constraints and the challenges of scrutiny, probity, confidentiality and fear. They live in a world where everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise and where the discretion they use, the decisions they render – often without full knowledge of a situation – can literally mean the difference between life and death for them or someone else.
We also heard officers speak with incredible pride about the work that they do, about the satisfaction that they have in assessing and resolving a difficult problem, about being able to alter another human being’s life. How many of us really get a chance to do that?
We had the privilege, these past few months, to ride along with various officers as well. Often the City was quiet and these rides were mercifully dull. And then, with lights and sirens and a gulp in the throat, some of us were off to face the unknown. We saw up close and personal the aftermath of a home invasion, with a rear entry glass door smashed, broken glass all over a den floor and a broken heart of a violated homeowner. We saw the arrest of three young adults, stopped initially for littering but taken in for possession of controlled substances.
Along the way, we learned how prevention and intervention can help manage problems, keep them from festering and developing into something worse. We learned that patience and preparation are key to making a case and, also, that the call of a curious citizen can lead, serendipitously, to the arrest of several people on the FBI’s most wanted list.
The Evanston Police Department is a small force – less than half the size of the estimated gang population in town and a very thin line between most of us and a much less pretty world.
We learned that we have been exceptionally lucky, so far. Crime may be contained, even reduced, but the department is spread way too thin. Single-officer-occupied patrol cars are not as safe as they should be. One domestic violence detective, however dedicated, is not sufficient. One school police officer for 3,000 high school students is a disaster waiting to happen.
As taxpayers, we know the cost of municipal government. As graduates of the Citizen Police Academy, we are quite conscious of the cost of short-staffing. Crime, we are taught, occurs where the community allows it. This is not the place for penny wisdom.
When we began our course three months ago, we came, each of us, from different places. When we left, we left, each of us, with more knowledge about programs, procedures and policies. But more than that, we left with real respect and true admiration for the incredibly dedicated men and women who are the Evanston Police Department.
We met real heroes: to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, men and women who down these sometimes mean streets must go, yet who themselves are not mean, who are neither tarnished nor afraid.
I am grateful for this sobering and enlightening experience. Class 34 begins in the fall. Anyone concerned about this community should consider participating.
Thank you, Evanston Police Department, for all that you do. May the members of the Department be safe always in their going forth from the station and in their return.
We came from different places, each of us. We are of different colors and shapes and sizes and ages. We entered the Academy with different education levels and work experiences. And each brought all of the biases that come from within us and from where we have been.