A City committee has begun to explore alternate ways to respond to emergency service calls now handled by the Evanston Police Department.

At the Aug. 3 City Council Human Services Committee meeting, Ald. Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, currently the Committee’s chairperson, pointed to a service model that was pioneered 30 years ago in Eugene, Ore., and is now being used in a number of other cities around the country.

And “what these cities have found,” she reported to the Committee , “is as they examine their 911 calls for service, they found that actually a majority of the calls do not require response from a sworn officer.”

Rather, she said, the calls more  often concern “non-criminal, non-violent situations, perhaps involving a mental illness issue, homelessness, substance abuse, intoxication.

“And so what the model calls for then is an alternative response — a two-person team in many cases, with a mental health professional and someone with a medical background. And so that team is sent to handle this particular situation,” she said, expressing hope the City would study the model further.

The talks are the first full-fledged discussions by City officials, following demonstrations the past few months, with a group of mostly young protesters calling for the City to “defund” the police department, maintaining other agencies are better qualified to provide certain services. A number of representatives from City departments and outside agencies weighed in at the meeting, including Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Fire Chief Brian Scott on the viability of moving to a new system.

Chief Cook spoke in support of the proactive approach Evanston was taking to the issue.

“Even though we’re not necessarily having a lot of the issues that they have in other departments,” he told Committee members, “it is still time for us to look at law enforcement in general and say, what can we do better as a law enforcement agency to stay ahead of the curve.”

Christopher Voss, the Evanston Police Department’s Assistant Communications Director, said 911 calls received through the station generally are either fire-medical or police related.

The Department does not call in victim advocates or social workers or youth organizations at that stage, he told Committee members. “We use our resources through the Evanston police department.”

He noted  that emergency situations need quick responses with  personnel trained to handle the situation.

“That’s why we have CIT- [Crisis Intervention Team] trained officers, as well as CIT trained dispatchers.”

Chief Cook also emphasized the special training Evanston police receive, drawing comparisons with the Eugene model.

He estimated that close to 90 of the department’s 140 officers are CIT trained in courses designed to improve the way law enforcement and the community respond to people experiencing mental health crisis.

“We’ve had police officers talk people out of suicide, because of their training. We’ve had them in the neighborhood, calming a neighborhood after violence, and we continue to train people in that area,” he said.

Even if the City were to turn to resources outside the department, “I think we do need here [to continue] training and to maintain a staffing level that’s commensurate with a town of this size,” he told Committee members. “This is a big city. And we have big-city issues. And we need to be as diverse as possible and provide good clean police service at this time.”

In his presentation, Fire Chief Scott told aldermen that the Eugene program reminded him of a program the Department launched in 2019, partnering with Amita Health Care and Saint Francis Hospital.

Under the Evanston Community Health Outreach (ECHO) program, the department’s firefighter/paramedics and nurses from the AMITA Health Saint Francis team, make home visits in an effort to focus on preventing emergency department readmissions,“ Chief Scott told the Committee. He said the health team in their visits also offer  health care system education, home safety inspections, as well as looking at social service referrals.

“And some of those things did relate to substance abuse and mental health,” he pointed out to the Committee.

The program initially started in Mesa, Ariz., in 2007, and Los Angeles has adopted it since then, he told Committee members. He said the program pairs up a fire department paramedic with a nurse, practitioner or physician’s assistant, “and also at times even as a mental health professional where they can triage at the 911 Center,” he said.

In an Evanston version of the program, a call might come into 911, and the dispatcher would have the opportunity to send out the ECHO team to that address, Chief Scott confirmed at the meeting, which was held online because of social distancing constraints.

Chief Scott told aldermen that even before they began looking at alternate emergency responses, the department had held some preliminary discussions with Amita Health/St. Francis about expanding the program.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked about the additional resources that would be necessary.

Chief Scott said if “we were to expand the program and go to a 24-hour model, it would most likely necessitate additional staffing. At this point, my discussions with Saint Francis are to what degree they [are] willing to fund the program. Will it be, you know, providing some of the nurse practitioner, nurse practitioners, providing the physician assistants and so forth? Would they be willing through their foundation maybe even to provide more funding at this point? I’m not sure, but there certainly could be a certain degree of financial incentive for the hospital because they’ll have less people coming into their ER [Emergency Room] unnecessarily.”


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.