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At the request of Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, the City’s Human Services Committee discussed police de-escalation – and, necessarily, unwarranted escalation – of routine encounters with residents. The discussion took place at the Oct. 4 meeting.

The topic arose out of Ald. Miller’s questioning of a May police stop and detention of a person riding a bike without a light late at night. The police should not, said Ald. Miller, use a bike light stop as pretext to handcuff and search someone as happened in that case. If the police were using the bike light ordinance as pretext, Ald. Miller said last month, then Council should repeal the ordinance.

“My intention was never, ever to remove the requirement to have a bike light at night,” he said at the Oct. 4 meeting. Instead, he wanted the committee to look at escalation, particularly in light of two complaints in about two years from residents stopped for not having bike lights. He pointed to a “number of incidents that are really troubling” where “officers moved much too aggressively” and “instead of backing down, were moving up” and escalating routine situations. “We have to do something else,” he said.

As an example of unnecessary escalation, resident Julie Koehler told the Committee of her experience on July 3. She said she pulled her minivan over briefly and “run into Starbucks to get a cup of coffee.” She left her three children in the car, but could see them at all times from the coffee shop window, she said. “As I am watching, a police officer approaches my car, talks to the kids, and walks away,” she said. “I assumed the best of the officer, but I assumed wrong, because he assumed the worst of me.”

The officer returned to the van after apparently having checked a nail salon to see if the mother was getting her nails done. At this point, said Ms. Koehler, her children were crying and distraught. “I immediately came flying out of that Starbucks,” she said. “That officer absolutely insists I am doing something wrong. The officer escalates the situation … He told me he would take my children away from me,” Ms. Koehler said.  

The officer ultimately walked away, but that was not the end of the story. “Two days later I have DCFS [the Department of Children and Family Services] knocking on my door,” said Ms. Koehler. The officer reported her to the Department of Children and Family Services, who initiated an investigation requiring physician visits to determine whether or not the kids were physically abused, mental health evaluations of the parents, references from friends, and a home visit.

About two months later, the ordeal was over and Ms. Koehler was cleared, she said. The DCFS investigator “was just as upset as I was. That officer wasted her time,” she said, adding there are “real abuse situations she should have been investigating.”

The harm continues to this day, Ms. Koehler said. Recently, while at a restaurant with her kids, a police officer walked in. “All three [kids] crawled under the table because they are afraid of the police,” she said.

Ms. Koehler is white, and the Starbucks in question was on Central Street. “Now people know how much it happens in my community,” said Madeline Ducre, a black woman from the Fifth Ward. The department needs to train “de-escalation from many officers all over this town.”

Ms. Ducre described a situation recently when a group of mostly black kids were “horsing around” and the cops were called. She mentioned four officers, two of whom chased the kids and shouted. “This officer scared the heck out of those children. They were scared.”

The other two officers reacted completely differently, and one walked up, extended his hand, and asked, “How are you doing young man?’ It makes a difference,” Ms. Ducre said. Engaging the residents on a personal level rather than escalating and assuming the worst made the difference. “I hope the [Dr. Gilo] Logan training will help. I really do. Police officers have to make a big change, have to make the first step,” she said.

“I am very upset,” said Priscilla Giles. “After listening to Julie Koehler, I can’t believe Evanston police officers are not better than they were 19 years ago. It’s horrible.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, thanked Ms. Koehler for speaking. “These are issues we deal with every day,” he said. “It is sad to say that it takes someone from outside the [Second and Fifth wards] community to move the needle.”

Both Ald. Miller and Ald. Braithwaite suggested the EPD focus on recommendations made in the Logan report, presented to the committee last month but included in the packet for the first time for the Oct. 4 meeting. Changes suggested in the report should be an immediate priority, and Police Chief Richard Eddington “should come back and flesh out ideas for officer training in the report,” said Ald. Braithwaite.