Police recognize that the organizational culture of police departments  can be an influence in how officers intervene – or fail to intervene – in such instances as the George Floyd murder, and they are working to change that, officials said at a wide-ranging Q&A session on policing July 6.

“Culture within the organization affects the way that people act within the organization,“ said Mitchell Davis, police chief in the village of Hazel Crest and first vice president for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “And for somebody not to have the wherewithal to have stopped that incident was a cultural thing, and all the training in the world doesn’t change the culture. So it’s got to be a two-pronged approach – and putting systems in place so that officers not only are held accountable from a policy standpoint, but they’re safe. They feel safe to be able to report these officers and to report these circumstances.”

 “How do you deal with change in organizational culture?” asked Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook. “You constantly preach what you expect. Whenever we review these situations and use of force, the first thing we go to is the body cameras, and we look at who’s around – we look at everybody’s body camera and then we determine [who was present], even if it’s a supervisor, because a supervisor’s responsibility is held to a greater standard than just a police officer. So that is how we face taking action and moving forward. and hopefully, over time, changing that organizational culture.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty served as moderator of the session which included Evanston Deputy Chief Jody Wright, in charge of support services, and Sergeant Gil Levy, in the Office of Administration, whose duties include training.

The Mayor recently announced plans to hold a series of discussions on policing in the City in an effort “to inform the City’s Council’s discussion on policing in Evanston as they consider any appropriate changes to better serve the community.”

 In the opening discussion July 6, panel members covered a wide range of issues, including police culture, the department’s training regimen, use of body cameras, racial bias and more.

The full discussion is on the City of Evanston’s Facebook page. Some excerpts are below:

On police culture, Chief Mitchell: “The biggest challenge that I see, and this is what I have been teaching, is the culture in law enforcement has to change. And the culture that I’m speaking of is historically, when it comes to marginalized communities and communities of color, law enforcement has policed the entire community. In other communities they (police) serve the community and they police the criminals. In black communities they police everybody…that mentality of policing black communities is well entrenched in our professional and what happens is so often we have well-intentioned people that come into this profession and they look up and the culture ends up sucking them in, and that implicit bias comes into play.”

 On education and training, Sgt.  Levy:  After graduating from police academies, “the training isn’t over when they [the new officers] come to us. They enter into a 20-week program where they’re matched up with field training officers, who themselves receive training in becoming an instructor in field training. So the recruits at that point will ride with the field training officer in uniform, responding to calls for service, handling everything. That continues for 20 weeks; there’s weekly and daily evaluations of the recruit officers, done not only by the field training officer but the shift sergeant. And then we also have a field training coordinator that oversees the entire program.”

 A couple of years ago, “we incorporated a lot of Evanston-specific training and information in the field training program. You know, we recognize the special community that we have here, the unique history, and we recognize the fact that the training that the officers received in the police academy may not – while they’re learning the laws, while they’re learning best practices – may not be specific to the City and balance things that we want them to come away with. And that’s why we have such a long in-depth field training program.”

On body cameras, Deputy Chief Wright: “So, when we first implemented body cameras we worked with the unions, and one of the things that we put in policies is that the sergeants are the first time supervisors. They’re required to do monthly checks. They look at each individual officer; they look at the calls of service that they have responded to over the course of a month. And what they do is they do random checks of those calls for service to make sure that the officer activated their body camera according to policy, and that, two, to look at that interaction.

“Just to take it a step further: We have had situations where supervisors have done those random checks and couldn’t find a body camera. That’s a violation of policy and we issue discipline for not having a body camera activated when it should be.”

On racial bias, Chief Cook: “The City of Evanston sponsored a trainer from Atlanta that put on a really good implicit-bias program. I’ve been a certified Cultural Diversity instructor myself with the State of Illinois for the last 25 years. You know, to say ‘racist,’ specific – it’s a mixture of implicit bias and making people understand what other communities are about. That’s done in a number of ways here – not only through training, but through  actual interaction with the public through our Problem Solving team who are out in the neighborhoods across all sections of this town, interacting and understanding what the concerns are, and what people feel about the police department.”

On police response to demonstrations, Chief Cook responding to Mayor Hagerty about the protests locally which followed the George Floyd death, including a march which drew a reported 5,000 people:

“Evanston is a unique town. We understand our residents, and we understand that they have a right to protest. When we have a large protest like that, our perspective is just to provide a safe route and protection for our crowd. We don’t want somebody driving through them with a car —  you know that happens in America these days. We don’t want people to feel like we don’t trust them by having police real visible. So when we hit the march with the high school, we had our officers staged off of the route [using] officers to block off traffic at the intersections. And, you know, by doing it like that, you know, we have a situation in front of the station yesterday, when we hate children painting — you know, it will do more harm than good to intercede into that. I think as long as people aren’t harming each other, they’re voicing their rights, we try to manage it. We are here in order to protect City assets, not necessarily create calls for the general public.”

In 2019, the City settled a lawsuit for $1.25 million with Lawrence Crosby, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who was pulled over and arrested by police after officers responded to a call from a woman who said she believed the car he was driving was stolen. It was later confirmed that the car was Mr. Crosby’s.

On changes instituted after the Lawrence Crosby settlement, Chief Cook: “When I came here, they were in the final phases of allocation of money for making Mr. Crosby whole from the actions of the police. My job became then is to ensure the officers involved had the property training to not do that. It was a supervisor involved in that and in order to make him whole I had to send him to Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command and he’s in the process of completing that course now. You know, anytime you have an incident that is catastrophic like that, you have to provide the proper training so that people know what they did is wrong, and that makes it easier for you to move forward in the future.”

On how the Evanston Police Department and its officers improve and learn from their mistakes, Chief Cook: “Well, I’m hoping that, like, like we discussed earlier, people understand that it is a culture, or we try to develop a culture of being positive to the community. We try to develop a culture of being safe in actions with the community, and limit over-policing any community. I think that training and keeping that in perspective, I think is the key to folks, learning how to maintain civility with our citizens, because there are some things we’re not going to tolerate here.  And hopefully they’ll [officers] learn when they see another officer that made a mistake. They’ll learn from disciplinary action – he received training and hours or goals –  to come back and spread it to his comrades.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.