When the Evanston Police Department’s weekly e-newsletter “In the Squad Room” made its debut in November 2013, it marked a big departure from the usual way the department interacted with the public.
Then-City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz had initiated the idea, suggesting the need “for a series of outreach communications familiarizing residents with the inner workings and activities of the Evanston Police Department.”
“The objective was greater transparency in an effort to enhance the relationship between residents and the EPD,” explained interim Police Chief Aretha Barnes in a September 7 memo to the City Council’s Human Services Committee.
The newsletter appeared to more than achieve that goal. Then-Police Chief Richard Eddington tapped Evanston resident Linda Hansen, who owns Wild Crow Communications Inc., for the job. She wrote engagingly about crime trends and police deployment strategies, giving her non-police readers a glimpse of the “inner workings” of the department as Bobkiewicz had hoped.
There was more. A typical issue contained a 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, a link for residents to submit questions and concerns, links to recovered property and crime reports and other department resources.
Each issue was edited by a department commander to ensure the content met the department’s confidentiality standards.
The newsletter proved popular – police reported that more than 3,000 residents subscribed, and that roughly two-thirds of readers opened or clicked on an item in the newsletter.
A ‘different direction’
None of those attributes could save the publication, though. At the November 1 Human Services Committee meeting, EPD Commander Jodie Hart told committee members “at this time, the Police Department will be headed in a different direction,” with the newsletter, the 360th – and final – edition of which hit residents’ email boxes August 27.
He said police plan to release their own newsletter, to be called the “Evanston Police Department Newsletter.”
The new department newsletter will consist of crime maps, crime trends, major incidents and crime prevention tips, he told committee members.
“But this newsletter will not include addresses, names or descriptors of offenders,” he said, addressing a criticism brought by one speaker at the September 7 Human Services Committee meeting, and then picked up by several committee members.
He said the department anticipates issuing the new newsletter by the end of this month.
Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, chairing the November 1 meeting, thanked the department “for going in a different direction.”
At the September 7 meeting, Karen Courtright raised concerns about what she perceived to be biased language and practices in the publication. Her concerns were also picked up by several other council members.
Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said that along with bias, he was concerned about the confidentiality of a system where “we have this person who’s able to sit down at confidential meetings that a regular member of the public couldn’t.”
Fleming said at that meeting, “My concern is that we’ve had this person doing this for however long this person has been doing this. I would much rather, if we think this is a valuable tool … have an officer who does a summary that is just very cut-and-dried.”
That was not the case with Hansen, who wrote with verve covering such topics as “Asian American Hate Crimes,” “The Growing Trend in Catalytic Converter Thefts” and “Diversity in the EPD” in the past year and a half.
“There are weeks when I struggle to coax a headline from the weekly Deployment Meeting,” she wrote after one busy week that included a bomb explosion and an ATF team being called in. “This was not one of them.”
This is a true loss for the city and will only decrease transparency. The newsletter had its own voice, which made it extremely readable, entertaining, and interesting. The open rate alone shows that people were engaged. To have “this person” sitting in confidential meetings, as Devon Reid was quoted as saying, gives the public MORE access to what’s going on (even though it seems to have been vetted for confidentiality before publication.) And Fleming wants a summary that is “cut-and-dried?” Ugh. No one will read it. As for bias, if anyone can send me specific examples from this newsletter, I’d love to read them. But that’s quite a charge against someone who invested so much of her time, energy, and talent into helping the community and who received a minimal fee to do so.
So sorry. Having a journalist write means a greater likelihood it will be well-written, and therefore more readable. If we go with “have an officer who does a summary that is just very cut-and-dried” it is likely to be unreadable or boring or both.
Too bad. So sad for Evanston. I remember being so happy when the newsletter started. It was informative, very well written, and occasionally witty. In the past , I’ve received the police report from other cities that was drab, terribly written, and only somewhat informative. I am very glad addresses were included as well as descriptions and names since I felt more informed especially about crime occurring near my neighborhood. I also never noticed any bias or inappropriate information and it saddens me to think some are insinuating these traits concerning the author. The city of Evanston has wonderful transparency with the public, and the newsletter did as well. I guess some Evanstonians, even some of our elected leaders, only want transparency on their own, narrow terms. I want to thank the author of the newsletter for several years of great information. It will be missed.
Typical Evanston. One person raises an objection, uses the magic word “bias” and, despite 3000 regular readers, Inside the Squad Room is folded. The objection of confidentiality doesn’t make sense. The names and descriptions of offenders are public record. Having a journalist have special access is a good thing. Now, nobody has access. How is that an improvement? I would much rather have a journalist publish this than have the police publish their own newsletter.
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