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The need for change in the traditional role of police has been a strong theme early on in Evanston’s election season, echoing the debate at the national level.

It was no different at a Jan. 14 virtual mayoral forum hosted by Evanston Live TV’s Meleika Gardner, with questions from local groups including the Evanston North Shore Branch NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

At the forum, the three mayoral candidates were asked what steps they would take to improve relations between the police and the City’s Black and Brown communities and how they would bring about reform in the department.

The candidates – Sebastian Nalls, a Purdue University student, Daniel Biss, a former state legislator for the area, and Lori Keenan, a long-time local issues activist – offered different solutions and approaches to the problem.

Mr.  Nalls, the first candidate asked to respond to the question, favored reallocating some of funds to the City’s Parks and Recreation and other departments to benefit youth and marginalized communities.

“The reality is that the Evanston police department is not exempt from the national issues that are currently facing policing here in the United States,” said Mr. Nalls, who is bi-racial, offering his own experience.

“Four years ago, during my junior year of high school, I was at the McDonald’s on Dempster and Dodge,” Mr. Nalls related. “We were ordering our food, and a number of kids that were also there were messing around. They [McDonald’s] threatened to call the police, and they actually called the police on those kids [who] left, and those police officers, once they arrived, turned their attention onto me. And I was forcibly removed from the McDonald’s, to be charged with trespass,” he said.

Mr. Nalls said his mother later called the police department a number of times and was ignored “countless” times.

He says he believes as a first step in facilitating growth “between our community, and especially our Black and Brown community and the police department, we need to first start with a comprehensive review of all of our officers, going through and evaluating individuals and making sure that they don’t hold biases against people of black and brown skin.”

Next, he said, would be going through the department’s funding and reallocating some to the City’s Parks and Recreation, Health and Human Services, and the Community Development departments “to create programs that benefit youth to lower youth criminality, as well as benefit marginalized communities.”

He said the next move would be the creation of an alternate emergency system, similar to one used by in Eugene, Ore., in which a crisis worker and other services would be responsible on some calls now handled by police.

Human Services Committee members are currently studying a system used in Olympia, Wash., as possibly a model to be used locally.

Mr. Biss, the next candidate asked to address the subject, said stronger civilian oversight  is needed to address trust issues that have grown between the community and the police department.

“We need to have a real civilian oversight board with teeth, with the ability to discipline officers, to start investigations, [and] to subpoena,” he said.

While there is a board in place currently, “it doesn’t really feel like they have a lot of authority, and so that’s not the tool that allows the community to really say, ‘Listen, we’re the ones in charge. You’re the police, [you] work for us, and we have the power to change their conduct if we don’t like what we see,’” he said.

He said another important measure involves “the way we release and analyze and talk about data.

“There’s actually a good State law on the books that I was involved in with back when it passed,” said Mr. Biss, “which requires police departments to collect and release data about traffic stops sorted by race so we can understand how much bias is there – where is that occurring, what can we do to address it. But that’s not the only data that we collect,” he said. “There’s data about use of force, there’s data about where the officers are, [and] at what time they come in contact [with civilians].”

Currently, to obtain the data, a resident may have to go through the Freedom of Information process which can involve “a lot of battling,” he said.

“What we ought to do instead,” he proposed, “is proactively, as a City, release the information and use that release as an opportunity to have a community-wide discussion.” 

Ms. Keenan said she would start with a forensic audit of the Evanston Police Department as well as look at the department’s budget, going back years.

For instance, she said, the School Resource Officer program “costs our City a half million dollars a year. I would love to see a half million dollars a year go into job training programs for kids at the high school, versus security.”

Evanston acted “regressively,” she said, when officials took the Freedom of Information Act “out of the City Clerk’s hand and put it into the hands of the Evanston Police Department.

“I think that the public should be able to get information when they ask for it,” she said.

She also questioned why communities similar in makeup to Evanston, such as Somerville, Mass., (population 81,360), “can police themselves for tens of millions of dollars less than Evanston can when they have a similar demographic and they’re a college town.”

“I think that we should be really looking at the bottom line and what our police are doing and provide them the funding that they need to do the job that they need,” she said. She maintained that jobs that do not require police should go to social services, “so that we’re not over-policing our Black and Brown communities.”

The three candidates are pressing to get their platforms in front of the public before the Feb. 23 Primary Election.

In the primary, a candidate who receives 50% of the votes plus one vote will be declared the winner of the mayor’s seat.

If no candidate receives that total, however, then the top two finishers in the primary will face a runoff in the April 6 General Election.

Candidates Question One Another

At the Jan. 14 forum, in one segment the candidates were encouraged to pick one of their challengers and pose a question.

Mr. Biss, leading off, picked Mr. Nalls.

“I think I’m not the only one in this community who has been inspired to see someone with your talent and youth step up and be in this race,” Mr. Biss began, “and my question for you is, ‘What thoughts do you have about ideas that we can use to engage more of Evanstonians of your generation in the process of making policy for the City?’”

Thanking Mr. Biss for the question, Mr. Nalls, 20, said, “I think it’s important that we give a voice especially to our younger generations that are growing up, just because they are the future. I believe it’s involving youth, especially at the high school level, in our electoral process, and making sure that they’re engaged politically and especially in these local elections. We see that the daily policies that are put in place by local government are what really affects individuals on a day-to-day basis, such as property taxes.”

He added, “I’ve said since the beginning of my campaign that I would love to establish an internship program in the mayor’s office, enabling youth to come in and experience local government and take those skills that they learn on the job anywhere in any walks of life.”

Mr. Nalls was next up.

“I would love to ask Lori Keenan on the question, ‘If you were to pick one issue you’re most known for… what would you say is your prime focus, your main driving point in this election season?”

Responding, Ms. Keenan said, “I think my main point of being involved in the election is to give power back to the people of Evanston. I feel like for too long we’ve sort of lost our path. And so I really like to see community involvement not be a contentious thing, but inclusive and inviting. I’ve seen for too long in the years that I’ve been speaking truth to power here in Evanston, just seeing more and more voices marginalized and I think there’s enough of that in the world. … So, I’d really like to give the power back to the people, and sort of level the playing field so that all voices are invited to the table.”

Ms. Keenan’s turn was next. She asked Mr. Biss what he had personally been involved with in town that he had found most rewarding.

Mr. Biss, who served in the Illinois State House and State Senate from 2011 to 2018, said it was his legislative service.

“I spent eight years representing this community, working on priorities that were important to this community and working with the city government to actually deliver on things that we needed,” he said. “So that included things like working closely with Mayor [Elizabeth] Tisdahl to make sure that we, at the State level, allowed the fire department to diversify; and working with the City to make sure we passed legislation on the State level to enable small businesses here in town to grow; to enable the streamlining and efficient delivery of services in our government. 

“And I felt that in the course of that time, I learned a great deal about what it takes to make the government, State government, work together effectively, on behalf of people. And that has a lot to do with what brought me into this race in this moment,” he said, “because we have a lot of challenges in front of us.” 

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.