Diversity consultant Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan moderates the town hall meeting on police-community relations. RoundTable photo

Residents who attended the June 20 town hall meeting on the police and the community came prepared to listen and to ask questions. Diversity consultant Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan moderated the discussion between the five-person panel composed of members of Evanston police command staff and the some 50 members of the audience.

Audience members asked, among other things, about the training offered to police officers in de-escalation tactics, ways to deal with an aging population, how police officers deal with at-risk youth who have a run-in with the law, whether Evanston police officers should live in Evanston, and how the police engage people in Evanston’s minority communities. A panel composed of Deputy Chief Aretha Barnes, Commander Mel Collier, Officers Tonya Jenkins, Will Arzauga, and Commander Brian Henry responded for the Police Department.

At the outset, Dr. Logan asked everyone present to engage in civil, rather than divisive discourse, and to remember what they have in common. “All have a vested interest in what happens in our community. All have a responsibility for what happens in our community – to make it a safer and more just community,” he said. Trust has to be earned on both sides, to allow “law enforcement to do their jobs and residents to feel safe and secure.”

Dr. Logan cited a recent study from the University of North Carolina that reported that in Evanston, minorities are many times more likely to be stopped and arrested than are whites. “Issues that have produced this imbalance sometimes lead to over-policing and sometimes to under-policing, but we cannot simply lay it at the feet of law enforcement. There is systemic racism – individual, cultural, and institutional. … As a community, we should take a moment to assess it.”

Dr. Logan said the community must understand what the police do and what community members can do to support the Police Department. The Police Department must promulgate and adhere to standards about what constitutes excessive force. The Department, he said, is still implementing new policies.

“Community policing is a collaborative approach to problem-solving,” Dr.  Logan said. “Police are seldom able to solve public safety crimes on their own. We must partner with them.”

Below are some of the questions posed by audience members, written on note cards and handed to Dr. Logan. The officers chose who would answer each question, and at times more than one officer responded.

De-escalation Training: Police officers receive 40 hours of training, said Cmdr. Barnes. “Not everyone is trained yet, but our goal is to get everyone in the department trained,” she said.

Dealing with an Aging Populace: “This is an ongoing process,” said Cmdr. Henry. “When it comes to the elderly, we have special people, and we have the Victims Services department. As a department, we draw upon what expertise we have.”

Living in Evanston: Only five of the 162 Evanston Police officers live in Evanston, and one resident said it makes her “uncomfortable that officers do not live here. What can the community do to encourage officers to live in Evanston?”

Family situations – such as children already in school or a spouse with a job – can prevent police officers from moving here, said Deputy Chief Barnes.  Officer Henry concurred, “I don’t think it is realistic. A lot of us have lives already. It’s asking a lot to have us move to Evanston. We have lives, a wife, and kids in school.” He also said that, given how expensive it is to live in Evanston, it might be that all police officers would live only in one section of town. 

Officer Arzauga said he feels that officers who work in Evanston and get to know the residents feel that they are part of the community. “I think  communication – bridging the gap [between police and community] that is the place to start. If you want to see immediate impact, start the conversation and address the things that are working.”

Officer Jenkins said, “Being a police officer is a very stressful job. If you live in Evanston, when are you off duty? You’re no longer just a resident. You never have the opportunity to unwind.”

Helping At-Risk Youth: One resident asked what tactics the Police Department have to help at-risk youth who get into trouble avoid jail time. “The goal is never to have them be part of the system,” said Officer Jenkins. There are alternatives to court, such as community service, restorative justice, and short-term counseling.

Independent Review Board: Deputy Chief Barnes said, “There have been six meetings with community members sorting out what a police review process should look like, and the Mayor is considering some applications from community members who would like to be on a committee to see what this process would look like.” She said the process could take nine months. Several members of an ad-hoc committee discussing the issue have suggested that an independent review board should have hiring and firing, subpoena, and investigative powers.

Support from the Community: “Do you believe that the citizens of Evanston are supportive of the Evanston Police Department?” one resident asked.

“Yes, I do,” said Cmdr. Henry. “I’m the Commander of the Problem-Solving Team and of Community Strategies, and I feel very supported by the community. Even though I don’t live here, I feel part of the community.”

“Yes,” said Cmdr. Collier. “The fact that you’re here shows you have our backs.”

Officer Jenkins said, “There is a different perspective when you are on patrol. … Patrol officers may feel the community does not support them.”

“I think it depends,” said Cmdr. Henry. “When I was on the night shift, I responded to murder and domestic violence calls. On the day shift, I was going to block parties.”

“Absolutely correct,” said Officer Jenkins.

Engaging Minority Communities: The Police Department does a number of things through community policing, the Citizens Police Academy (one for adults and one for youth), and the “Law and Your Community” and the “Officer and Gentlemen” programs for black youth.

Disproportionate Stops and Arrests: Audience members asked questions about drugs and drug arrests, the Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, and the unsolved murders of several black men.

The Police Department issues C-tickets for possession of small amounts of cannabis, said Cmdr. Henry, but does prosecute “high-end” drugs, such as heroin. 

“Stop-and-frisk,” said Officer Arzauga, “is not designed to target law-abiding citizens. It was designed to target known gang members and known criminals. How many people do we perceive are involved in criminal activity? 3%.”

Cmdr. Henry acknowledged that there are several unsolved murders but said race has nothing to do with their not being solved. “As a Police Department, we do everything we possibly can to solve these, but we need cooperation. If we had more cooperation from people who [now] refuse to come forward and cooperate, we would solve more murders.”

Dr. Logan said that, at a town hall meeting last year, it was brought up that some residents said they feel the African American community is policed more aggressively and more negatively than others. “What factors does the department think contribute to this and what can be done by the Department to improve this perception?” he asked.

“I don’t think that,” said Cmdr. Collier. “I believe we encounter more criminal activity in the African American community. Most of the crimes that are committed in Evanston are committed by African Americans. As for us aggressively doing it – that’s what you hired us for. As for negativity – that’s why I’m here. If the police encounter someone who is taking away your quality of life, [we] should arrest them. I think the perception is when people see us, they think we are arresting only black people. That is not the case. We arrest only people who commit crimes.”

With about 10 minutes left in the meeting, Dr. Logan requested that the members of the two groups each ask what those groups could do to improve police-community relations.  Among the responses about what the community could do were the following: challenge residents to suspend mistrust; attend meetings; get to know the patrol officers; insist on transparency; “halt the persistent vilification of officers, who are, ultimately, people, too;” and stop, video, and report police-citizen interactions.

The panelists offered two suggestions for the police: that they get out of their cars more and engage with the community, and that they be transparent.

Dr. Logan thanked the participants for their civility in discussing some difficult issues and for their clear handwriting that “made it easy on my eyes. This town hall meeting is a testament to our community. It is imperative that we participate, and it is important to remember we all want the same thing – a safe, secure, and just community in which to live.”