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The Evanston Police Department’s weekly e-newsletter, “In the Squad Room” (ITSR) was a major topic of discussion at a Sept. 7 meeting of the City Council’s Human Services Committee, which recommended several changes after hearing input from attendees.
Police Commander Jason Garner presented information about the newsletter, which has both fans and critics, and responded to questions from committee members.
The Human Services Committee is composed of Council members Cicely Fleming (Chair), 9th Ward; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Bobby Burns, 5th Ward; Devon Reid, 8th Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, all of whom were present.
In his presentation, Cmdr. Garner said ITSR “shares nonconfidential highlights and crime trends from weekly [police] deployment meetings.”
He outlined some key aspects of the ITSR e-Newsletter: The publication features a variety of topics, including reader questions, traffic safety and educational material such as how to use Text-A-Tip messaging. With few exceptions, ITSR has been published weekly since 2013. A civilian resident author is paid by the City, currently $110 per post. There has been only one author since the newsletter began nearly eight years ago.
Cmdr. Garner highlighted some of the metrics used to measure the success of ITSR, which has about 3,000 subscribers.
“A recent issue had approximately 1,000 unique ‘opens’ – that is to say, we have 1,000 different people who open the publication,” he said. “A recent engagement rate was 66% – roughly two-thirds [of readers] opened or clicked on an item in the newsletter.”
ITSR is delivered primarily through Twitter and email. Individuals who wish to receive ITSR can visit the City of Evanston Email and Text Updates web page and select “Squad Room Updates.”
A typical issue of ITSR is composed of a title and photograph, the weekly crime map, a recap of the week’s deployment meeting, a feature on upcoming events and either an “Inquiring Minds” or “Traffic Safety” feature. Information repeated in every issue includes details of the ongoing gun buyback program, a link for residents to submit questions and concerns, links to recovered property and crime reports including monthly statistics, the daily crime bulletin and police dashboard and information about the Citizens’ Police Academy.
ITSR is edited and uploaded to the City’s GovDelivery marketing platform by Cmdr. Garner, who reported that approximately three-fourths of 54 respondents to a recent survey had an excellent overall opinion of the publication. In response to a question from Ald. Fleming, he acknowledged that community members have criticized as well as praised the publication.
Information pertaining to juveniles, domestic-related incidents or pending investigations are examples of content that is excluded from ITSR. However, “adult arrests resulting in criminal charges may be included by name, or a reported offense may be described similar to the EPD’s daily crime reports,” according to a memorandum dated Sept. 7, 2021, from interim Police Chief Aretha Barnes to members of the Human Services Committee.
In a public comment, Evanston resident Karen Courtright said, “I have written to EPD many times about what I perceive to be biased language and practices in the publication. I have written, asking that suspects not be described by physical characteristics, since it serves no purpose except in post hoc community communications. One person has written this for years and years.”
In another public comment, Evanston resident Betty Ester said she had thought the author of ITSR was a volunteer, rather than paid writer, until Cmdr. Garner disclosed Sept. 7 that the author was compensated by the City. She also commented that weekly police deployment meetings were at one time open to the public, “and people think they can still go there.”
At the meeting, interim Chief Barnes confirmed that weekly police deployment meetings have not been open to the public, except for the civilian resident author of ITSR, for more than a year due to “the confidentiality and extremely sensitive nature of information we were releasing. The purpose of those meetings is so that we will know how to deploy our resources. They also speak to information about events that have already occurred and are about to occur.”
Following public comments and discussion, the committee provided direction for future ITSR newsletters. The panel recommended that the EPD should seek to rotate civilian resident authors after a period of service and require civilian authors to sign a nondisclosure agreement and a writer contract.
Additional recommendations were that ITSR should not publish the names or physical descriptions of people who are arrested or convicted of crimes, especially since that information can be accessed in other places, such as the Daily Crime Bulletin.
ITSR was initiated in November 2013 by then-City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who “saw the need for a series of outreach communications familiarizing residents with the inner workings and activities of the EPD. The objective was greater transparency in an effort to enhance the relationship between residents and the EPD,” interim Chief Barnes wrote in the Sept. 7 memorandum.