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A deadly global pandemic first hit the local community nearly two years ago, and 143 Evanston residents have died due to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus since March 2020.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have also led to more conversations about mental health, crime and violence. According to a city memo, nine local youth between the ages of 14 and 24 were shot in 2021, four of whom were killed. A tragic November 2021 shooting at an Evanston gas station on Green Bay Road left four teenagers injured and one dead.
Within weeks of that shooting, a threat of violence – eventually deemed not credible by police – rocked Haven Middle School in Evanston. Then, on Dec. 16, officials at Evanston Township High School discovered two loaded handguns in student backpacks, triggering a traumatic, hourslong lockdown at the school that left hundreds of parents concerned about the safety of their children.
Simply put, a lot of people in Evanston – and around the world – are tired, scared and on edge right now.
Teens, young adults feel stress of pandemic
“The mental health impacts that we’re seeing from a sustained pandemic … have, no question, had a really deleterious impact on people’s mental health, people’s sense of wellbeing,” said Roseanna Ander, Executive Director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago and an Evanston resident. “And I think that as best we can tell, the population that seems to be feeling those impacts most acutely are adolescents and young adults, and it’s that exact population that is also the same population that is at elevated risk for involvement in things like gun violence.”
Young people are particularly vulnerable to mental health struggles, concerns about safety and feeling insecure in the unstable environment of COVID-19. According to a study published in May 2021, more than 25% of U.S. high school students reported a decline in emotional health during the pandemic, and 31% of parents said their child’s mental and emotional wellbeing had deteriorated.
Kristen Kennard, Director of Social Work Services at the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy in Evanston, said the challenges facing young people can lead to a desperate desire for attention, care and connection that may underlie many crimes.
“When a crime has been committed, when harm has been done, it is ultimately identifying needs and underlying issues that are leading to a larger problem,” Kennard said. “So we’re seeing how trauma and mental health issues and poverty and broken systems, how those things are manifesting in potentially bad decision-making, desperate decision-making, things like that.”
As the pandemic shut down in-person schooling in Evanston for over a year, every child and teenager has experienced some level of social isolation and disengagement.
Many teachers, parents and community members like to say that Evanston has a wealth of resources to address whatever problems may arise, but according to Ander, addressing violence and the struggles of young people during the pandemic will take money, time and years of hard work.
“We have to understand that young people are suffering to an extreme degree, and we need to redouble our efforts to invest in the kinds of intervention that are reaching those who are suffering the most, as well as recognize that it’s important to invest in social services, but we also need the right kind of policing – humane, fair and effective policing,” she said.
The University of Chicago’s Ander said school districts also can tap into advanced data – such as grades, attendance records and teacher evaluations – to intervene with high-risk youth and others who start to disengage from school or slip through the cracks.
For juvenile justice attorney Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Executive Director of the Moran Center, addressing crime, violence and the pandemic’s impacts on young people ultimately boils down to one thing: relationships. When kids develop more close and meaningful connections to other young people and adults, they feel safer and “have less propensity to cause harm,” Keenan-Devlin said.
“Kids need what we all need,” he said. “They need housing, they need food, they need social-emotional support and the last thing, which we all need – but particularly children – is relationships.”
Crime down overall, but up in ‘most harmful’ categories
Evanston Police Department numbers indicate that in 2021, overall crime in Evanston was at its lowest level since 2016, and only a few specific categories showed increases. Aggravated assaults fell 90% in 2021 compared with 2020 levels, and burglaries, weapons law violations and destruction of property were all down in 2021 as well.
Still, homicides, motor vehicle thefts, robberies and simple assaults were more common in 2021 than in any year since at least 2016, according to police data.
“Many types of crime are down,” Ander said, “but what is unfortunate is the truly most harmful – from an individual cost, community cost, social cost, economic cost – those types of crime, while they’re a small share of overall crime, they do the majority of the harm that comes from crime, and those categories are up in many, many places, including [the] Chicago [area].”
For the most part, those kinds of crime involve guns, according to Ander. Evanston has seen a slight uptick during the pandemic in homicides, shootings and youth violence, according to EPD statistics and city memos. Nine murders and non-negligent manslaughters occurred across 2020 and 2021 in Evanston, compared with five from 2017 through 2019.
Short-staffed police force
The rise in gun-related crime amid the pandemic is also occurring at a time when police departments are facing officer shortages, which means that departments do not have the time to invest in relationship-building and community-based policing. Those tactics centered on human connection reduce crime more effectively than simply answering calls for help, Ander said.
In 2021, EPD had 141 sworn members, which includes anyone who carries a badge and firearm and has arrest powers, including plainclothes detectives. That includes 113 police officers, down from 163 sworn members and 126 officers in 2017, according to data obtained by the RoundTable through a Freedom of Information Act request. EPD currently has 22 staff vacancies, fueled by 12 retirements in 2020 and 11 resignations in 2021.
Evanston has had three different police chiefs in the last nine months – Demitrous Cook retired in June 2021, Aretha Barnes served as the interim chief until she retired in January and former EPD Chief Richard Eddington recently took over as the interim head of the department.
Meanwhile, amid that turnover in police leadership, Mayor Daniel Biss has sparked new conversations about making changes to policing in Evanston through his Reimagining Public Safety Committee. Currently, that group is looking at possible funding allocations for both policing in Evanston and other public safety alternatives like mental health crisis officers, as well as any necessary changes to EPD.
Youth outreach, violence prevention
In response to the Green Bay Road shooting in November, City Council members approved $552,500 in funding for a new youth outreach position and expanded violence prevention programs in January.
Overall, EPD, City Hall and the Moran Center agree that relationship-building and investment in youth engagement are priorities for Evanston in the coming years.
For Keenan-Devlin and the Moran Center, the key question is if enough people are willing to support the kind of investments of their time and money necessary to help young people get through an extraordinarily challenging period of time. If people are not willing to develop relationships with youth and hear about their struggles and violence prevention efforts, those efforts will never work, according to Keenan-Devlin.
But Keenan-Devlin said he has noticed that people in Evanston have a promising willingness to draw close to one another, develop relationships and invest in a social safety net for youth. Ultimately, one of the Moran Center’s main goals is to facilitate spaces for Evanston residents to connect, hear about young people’s needs and learn how they can help, according to Keenan-Devlin.
“In order to care and to be willing to change and to change systems, we have to know each other, and that takes a lot of work,” he said. “That’s one of the greatest obstacles we have.”