Fireworks set off during the Oct. 31 protests Submitted photo

Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook placed the responsibility on protesters and not an outside police force organization called in to quell a student protest in a demonstration that turned chaotic Oct. 31.

The chief made his comments at the Jan. 4 City Council Human Services Committee meeting, at which aldermen examined concerns raised in the wake of Evanston’s use of the  Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS)  police force to quell a student protest on Halloween night.

Some students and residents have charged unnecessary force was used in the incident, in which police employed pepper spray to bring under control a crowd of 150 protesters who had gathered downtown.

Subsequently, two student journalists at Northwestern University have published articles that raised questions about  the conduct of officers from the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS), the outside police force Evanston police called in to help them quell the situation.

Addressing the matter at the Human Services Committee meeting, Chief Cook spoke of police efforts to allow students to protest peacefully over the past summer, in which the protesters held 21 demonstrations, calling for abolition of the University Police Department. Many of the protesters blocked traffic in the downtown area.

“We made sure that they had passageway in the street, even though none of these organizations that were protesting with Northwestern had permits to do so. But we recognized for the good of the public that we should allow that and we provided safe passage in the streets,” he said.

He maintained the protest which occurred Saturday night, Oct. 31, was different.

“It turned into a different way,” he told the Committee. “It became violent, and it became violent because of the actions of the protesters.

“I wanted it to be as least intrusive on a student’s life as possible, with respect to arrest, because I’m not here to destroy a student’s career,” he stressed to the Committee members. 

“I’m not here to have their parents waste their money – sending them to school here and their kid gets arrested,” he continued.

“But sometimes the actions of people necessitate that, and that’s what the situation was on the 31st.”

In the incident, police said, the protesters, including some Northwestern students, had gathered in downtown Evanston at Sheridan Road and Clark Street.

Police said the crowd then marched into downtown Evanston, with some protesters throwing rocks and bricks at police officers; lighting fireworks in the direction of officers; pointing lasers at police officers’ eyes; using umbrellas to cover individuals’ graffitiing streets, stop signs and electric boxes; and damaging property.

One student was arrested. “And there were several opportunities for more of them to be arrested,” Chief Cook told the Committee.

“When they started fires, when they destroy property – the sidewalk cafes – breaking out windows, that dictated a response,” he said, listing some of the incidents.

“…I want the students to know that you are visiting the City of Evanston. The business people here have a right to maintain their property in a way that’s fit for all of them,” he said.

“Everybody has the right in this town to be in a situation free of violence, free of violence,” said Chief Cook, who previously as president and commanding officer of the South Suburban Emergency Response team commanded one of the largest S.W.A.T. teams in the state.

“Now, some of these people want to make it like NIPAS was the perpetrator, and they want to turn the situation around. That’s their right to do so.”

He told the Committee member if he received a complaint about a NIPAS officer — “and it better not be an Evanston officer,” he warned, “I will forward it to the appropriate authorities that manage NIPAS.

“And I haven’t gotten any of those complaints yet,” he said. “If you reviewed a video you’ll see we acted appropriately.”

Chief Cook said police were not sure all the people out there were students. “We know some of them were anarchists, which may be turned into subversive groups,” he said.

Second Ward Alderman and Human Services Committee member Peter Braithwaite thanked the chief for his detailed report on the incident.

Ald. Braithwaite noted that Chief Cook maintained that “it was violence we were responding to, not protesting.”

“It was the violence that necessitated the need for outside police force,” Ald. Braithwaite said. “If this was a conversation about the misconduct of the Evanston police department I think it takes a different tone,” he said.

“But I think it’s clear that, at least to me, If we didn’t have the violence from outsiders coming into our community, residents threatening property, residents, threatening violence, residents, we would not have to go to this extreme,” Ald. Braithwaite said.

 Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle also thanked the chief for his detailed report. She raised concerns, though, about the City’s use of NIPAS moving forward.

“My concern with NIPAS is whether they are going to follow that same care and caution that you set for our police officers,” she told the chief. “I mean they are really scary looking people, and they just don’t feel like Evanston, and so I’m struggling with our need to bring them in, when there’s violence and destruction of property.”

Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked who bears responsibility for the total costs, estimated at over $88,000 for all personnel-related costs stemming from the police-NIPAS response.

“I would have just assumed the Northwestern police force be the one out there managing their own students,” she said.

In her remarks, Ald. Fleming raised concerns about some of the findings unearthed about the NIPAS mobile unit’s conduct, including one that their identification was obscured.

“You know I’ve chosen not to be a police officer,” she told Chief Cook. “I understand the job is taxing, but I also understand the citizens points —  particularly in this last year with so much tension in the air, that our citizens do have very high expectations for our officers in terms of behavior and conduct. And I will say the same expectations [apply] for NIPAS, that they’re coming into our town at your request.”

With her remarks, she said she would send a text message to the Chief, showing one of the NIPAS officers on the night of the protest without an identifying badge number.

She urged the Chief to have a conversation with the organization. “I don’t expect you to manage every officer there,” she said, but that the City convey “a very clear understanding of what our expectations are for treatment of our citizens, the respect level here in Evanston.”

Earlier in the meeting, held virtually because of social distancing restrictions, a number of speakers raised questions about the use of NIPAS and lack of transparency about the organization.

“ We can’t do a F.O.I. [Freedom of Information Act request],” said Betty Ester, co-founder of the Citizens’ Protection Network, a group established to assist residents with filing complaints against police officers’ misconduct.  They are un-FOI-able,” she said.

Right now, she said, her group would have to submit F.O.I.A. requests with 90 different municipalities, “and that’s hard to do.” She asked the City to step in and make information more accessible.

Alex Harrison and Zach Watson, the two student journalists who wrote stories on NIPAS, also spoke at the meeting about some of the findings of their research, including  uncomplimentary comments in NIPAS officers’ texts about protesters. They also shared concerns about the roadblocks they encountered obtaining information about the group.

The meeting can be viewed at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4_Ww6upI71Q&feature=youtu.be