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‘He felt the community’s strife’
A nearly four decades career came to an abrupt and awkward end June 7 with the City releasing a statement that Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook had announced his retirement from the Evanston Police Department.
The City announcement came three days after the Chief learned from City Manager Erika Storlie that his resignation was being requested, “at the will of the Council,” according to people who had conversations with Chief Cook afterward.
The Chief had declined at first to sign the resignation agreement, which included the terms of his retirement from the Department, the RoundTable reported earlier.
The local NAACP branch had called an emergency meeting on June 6 in response to reports the Police Chief had been asked to resign.
The organization had also planned a protest for June 13 before the announcement came down on June 7, via a City release, of the Chief’s retirement decision.
Chief Cook declined on June 7 to discuss his decision in a phone call. “My lawyer – they worked it out, so that is what is out there,” he said, cutting off other questions.
Ms. Storlie could not be reached for comment about the situation on June 6 or 7.
She was reportedly scheduled to provide a report on the issue at an executive, or closed, meeting with Council members on June 7.
Kevin Brown, the City’s popular Community Service Manager, whose own termination in November 2019 touched off community protests, said, “Given all the circumstances, it appears the Chief was forced out of his job; and I think the way it was handled shows that the City government remains incompetent.”
Mr. Cook, Evanston’s third Black police chief, had been a popular choice after then City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz tapped him for the top police job in January 2019.
Mr. Cook had joined the Department in 1984 as a patrol officer and became a familiar figure in the community’s predominately Black Fifth Ward, serving as that area’s foot patrol officer.
He had risen through the ranks to become Deputy Chief in 2004, overseeing the department’s Support Services Division and later the Investigative Services Division.
In 2010, he was hired as the chief of police for the Glenwood Police Department in Chicago’s south suburbs, before returning to become Evanston’s police chief.
“He served for so long as a police officer, and then he came back as Chief,” observed Mr. Brown. “So he had a familiar relationship with the community and that’s sort of evidenced when he purchased former Mayor [Lorraine H.] Morton’s home [the City’s first Black mayor], and he made his home in the heart of the Fifth Ward. And you’re just losing all that.”
The City announcement noted that “under Chief Cook’s leadership, the Evanston Police Department enhanced its focus on building positive police-community relations, continuing community engagement initiatives such as Coffee with a Cop, STAR Academy, the Citizen Police Academy, the Officer and Gentlemen Academy mentorship program, Five-O Fitness program, National Night Out, and the Youth Citizen Police Academy. The department also improved its complaint process, making it easier and more comfortable for community members to file police complaints.
“In 2021, under Chief Cook’s leadership, the department achieved federal use-of-force certification from the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, and in 2020 worked with The Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative (N3) to conduct an external review of its Use of Force Policy,” the City announcement related.
“Chief Cook also oversaw upgrades to the department’s radio communication system, improving reliability and enhancing interoperability with surrounding police departments, including in response to critical incidents.”
The Chief also faced some unique challenges during his relatively short tenure. In February 2020, he apologized publicly after posting to Snapchat photos that included confidential information.
The Chief said he was saving the photos in connection with an ongoing investigation. Nonetheless, the City settled several lawsuits as a result of the Chief’s action.
The Department also had to deal with the wave of demonstrations that rocked the country after George Floyd’s death in police custody last May.
In Evanston, protesters called for defunding the department and reallocating resources to other forms of community support.
Northwestern University protesters staged more than 50 protests later in the year, resulting in only one arrest, Chief Cook would note later, respecting protesters right to assemble.
In November 2020, Council members approved a budget eliminating 11 police officer positions in a department that had been protected against such cuts in the past because of officials’ concerns about public safety.
Former Evanston Police Commander Michael Gresham, whom Mr. Cook broke in as a patrol officer, said early on that Chief Cook, by “being out in the community and doing things, he could see the impact. He felt the community’s…strife, especially the families who had unsolved homicide cases,” he said. “They felt like they didn’t have a voice and ‘D’ [Demitrous] kind of gave them that.”
In numerous meetings about changes to policing during the past year, the Chief could be seen at his desk in the station at Elmwood Avenue, answering questions from officials and residents.
One of his proudest accomplishments was the establishment of a Youth Citizen Police Academy.
Mr. Cook himself had overcome early life challenges, growing up in the projects on Chicago’s South Side and losing his father early. He credited local community leaders with providing a boost. After a Bachelor of Science degree from Southern Illinois University, he went on to earn a Master of Science degree in Criminal Social Justice from Lewis University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Law Enforcement from Southern Illinois University.
Mr. Gresham noted Mr. Cook’s short tenure compared to those of two recent chiefs, both white. Richard Eddington retired after more than 11 years as Chief at the end of 2018. Before that, Frank Kaminski retired after nearly a 10-year run.
Mr. Gresham said he talked with Chief Cook after his meeting with the City Manager about his retirement.
“He was hurt when he called me. I thought he was joking,” he said. “I said, ‘You’re joking me.’ He said, ‘They just called me to resign.’”
“The sad thing is, they didn’t let him do any promotions,” said Mr. Gresham. “He didn’t even have a secretary. [The Chief’s secretary position was eliminated in a budget cut.] As a division chief, my secretary kept me on target. I don’t know how you function at that level without an administrative assistant.”
Before Chief Cook’s announcement, Oliver Ruff, a retired Evanston educator and administrator, noted that Chief Cook has “a staunch reputation in the community.”
Therefore, he maintained, “If you’re asking for a resignation there has to be some reason for that.”
Mr. Ruff noted that the Police Chief occupies “an extremely strategic position” in the community. Therefore, “You can cause a lot of instability and destabilization in the community” if no process is in place, he said.