Late on a mid-May night, an Evanston resident riding his bike after allegedly having a few drinks was stopped by the police because he did not have a bicycle light on his bike. He was then subjected to a search, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a police cruiser before ultimately pushing his bicycle home in tears – and with a City of Evanston citation to boot.

On Oct. 4, at the request of Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, the City’s Human Services Committee discussed police de-escalation, and unnecessary escalation, during routine encounters with residents. The topic arose out of the police stop referred to above. Ald. Miller said he is aware of a number of instances where a police officer has escalated a situation much quicker than he was comfortable with.

At the meeting, Ald. Miller quoted several findings made by consultant Gilo Kwesi Logan in a report he prepared for Richard Eddington, Chief of the Evanston Police Department. The report was presented to the Human Services Committee on Sept. 7. Among the findings which are based on interviews of community members are, “There exists a general misunderstanding, disconnection, mistrust, and lack of discourse between the department and member groups within the community. … Diverse groups in the Evanston community hold deeply held views that racism, or at least racial bias, is the root cause of mistrust between EPD and communities of color. … People of color, particularly African Americans, reported seeing or having disproportionally more negative experiences with the police.”

“Whether this is true or not,” said Ald. Miller, “That is the perception toward our officers. We as a Council have to adopt a policy statement of how we want our officers to treat our residents and that’s why I want to continue this conversation.”

At the meeting, Deputy Police Chief Aretha Barnes, summarized what the EPD has been doing to train officers how to de-escalate or defuse a tense situation, and how to handle encounters so people feel they are treated fairly and with respect.

Among other things, officers have received training from outside consultants and the U.S. Department of Justice. New recruits are interviewed by supervisors, peers, and the civil service commission.

Undoubtedly police have a difficult job, and are required to deal with potentially explosive situations. At times, they respond to 911 calls of a shooting, or a person with a gun, or a group of youth fighting. At times, they make a routine traffic stop, and a person has a gun. At times, they encounter people who are mistrustful, or who are rude, or who are defiant.

How a police officer approaches a situation may determine how things go. If an officer starts off with an accusatory or disrespectful tone or in an aggressive manner, what should be a minor matter could escalate into something worse, or leave a community member angry or distrustful. 

Sometimes, though, police have no choice but to take more aggressive steps in order to control a situation, to preserve the peace, or defend themselves.

Every situation is different, and we expect police officers to size each one up quickly and react in a professional manner.

Several aldermen said encounters with police are a two-way street, and that community members need to be educated on how to react during police encounters. There are groups that are providing information to community members on how to react when stopped by police.

Ald. Miller suggested police need to approach situations with a different mindset, and not assume the worst from the start.

Ald. Delores Holmes pointed out, “Things can escalate depending on how a person is approached. … I think we all need to learn how to be more respectful of each other as human beings and that goes for the police as well as for citizens.”

She added, “There’s been a lot of progress, much more than we’ve had. Is it good enough yet? Absolutely not.”

Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd Ward) noted that Dr. Logan’s report included nine suggestions made by police officers on how to address issues raised in the report. He asked that Chief Eddington be asked to explain the suggestion in more detail at a future Human Services Committee meeting.

Alderman Mark Tendam (6th Ward) said, “The discussion is critically important. I think we have everything to gain from discussing these issues.”

We agree. While we believe that the vast majority of police encounters are handled professionally, it behooves us a community to have an honest and robust discussion on this issue.