Rows of family photographs surround the desk of Schenita Stewart, the Evanston Police Department’s new chief. After 23 years of service, Stewart made history as the first woman to become the permanent police chief in Evanston. The city appointed her to the position after two interim chiefs and a yearlong referral-only search.

Appointing women to positions of power in police departments seems to be infectious. At the Oak Park Police Department, Shatonya Johnson was appointed as its first female police chief on Tuesday.

At every office new EPD Chief Schenita Stewart has worked in, she keeps photos of her loved ones close at hand. Credit: Gina Castro

Stewart, who most recently served as deputy chief of the East Dundee Police Department, comes from generations of Evanstonians.

She grew up playing basketball at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center and graduated from Evanston Township High School. Many in the community fondly call her “Twin,” in reference to her coming into the world as a package deal with her sister, Commander Schonella Stewart of the Oak Park Police Department. 

Schenita Stewart recalls her grandfather’s advice leading her to a career as a police officer

Her grandfather, William H. Stewart, spotted a newspaper ad seeking to hire officers to the Lincolnwood Police Department and told her she should apply. At the time, Stewart had recently earned a degree in criminal justice from Illinois State University. 

A photo of her beloved grandfather, who passed away in 2006, sits by her office window. His fists are up in a playful boxing stance. A black-and-white photograph of his mother, Christine Jay, rests nearby.

These photos follow her to each of her job postings, as a reminder of where she came from, Stewart said. Now, they’ve come full circle, back to the community she says raised her.

“I got to show that there are female minorities in this profession that have great leadership skills, great resumes,” Stewart said. “My background, my resume, my experience is why I’m in this position. And I’m hoping in the future, other city managers give qualified candidates the same fair opportunity to be the chiefs of police and deputy chiefs nationally.”

The RoundTable recently sat down with Stewart in her office. Although she’s been in the office only since Oct. 10, she shared her three priorities as police chief: relationships with the community, staffing and officer wellness.

Community partnerships

Just 9% of members of the the department live in Evanston, according to the EPD Transparency Hub. Many cities in the U.S. require law enforcement officers to live within the city limits of the community they serve. Chicago has had this requirement for nearly a century.

Stewart was formerly deputy chief of the East Dundee Police Department. Credit: Gina Castro

Stewart said the EPD’s volunteer work in the community, especially with youth, makes up for officers not living in the city.

She doesn’t think having the majority of officers living outside of the community affects the service they provide.

“I’m proud of the engagement that our police officers do outside of their day-to-day responsibilities here,” Stewart said.

Stewart also blames the housing market for making it difficult for law enforcement personnel to afford to live within Evanston’s city limits.

When asked what she thought about EPD’s current relationship with the community, Stewart said the relationship could be better. But she said building trust with the community is something that police departments should always work on, regardless of whether the relationship seems good.

“We have to go out there in the field and take the time to build back those relationships,” Stewart said. “It’s my job as the chief to try to put our staff in a position to have opportunities to build on those relationships.”

EPD Administrative Coordinator Janella Hardin is Chief Stewart’s right-hand woman. Credit: Gina Castro

To help develop her own relationship with the community, Stewart is hosting a Coffee with the Chief series. These events will be held in the various wards and begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2 at Colectivo Coffee, 716 Church St., in the First Ward. 

Stewart hopes the meet-and-greets will give the community the opportunity to bring any concerns directly to her. She also hopes to begin volunteering at the nonprofit FAAM. She said she benefited from FAAM’s work when she was growing up here. This organization provides a nurturing environment for middle school students interested in basketball and cheerleading.

Another initiative Stewart is working on is updating the families of crime victims on the status of their cases. She plans to call the mothers of cold case homicide victims to give them an update.

Staffing crisis

The department is in the midst of a staffing shortage crisis, Stewart confirmed. It is short 26 sworn vacancies and six civilian vacancies, according to an August EPD news release.

This shortage resulted in officers from the Community Policing Unit being temporarily reassigned. Stewart wasn’t police chief when that decision was made, but she said, “I support that decision, because the community wants people to answer those 911 calls, and we need the bodies to answer those calls.”

The Community Policing Unit isn’t the only unit affected, Stewart said. The Investigations Unit has also been depleted.

The shortage, Stewart said, is a national issue with recruitment and retention of law enforcement personnel. This issue has worsened as a result of warranted criticism of violence and mistreatment by police in the U.S., she said.

Stewart said she is working on identifying solutions to the department’s staffing issues. Right now, she is working on making the hiring process more effective and efficient. 

Staffing shortages mean overworking current law enforcement officers, Stewart said. This harms the officers’ wellbeing and morale, she said.

“Officers are working a lot more hours than they normally would,” Stewart said. “And no matter what the profession, that’s going to put a strain on not only that individual but the individual’s family.” 

Officer wellbeing

Stewart has launched an survey within the department to help determine what issues the officers are facing. This internal study won’t be shared with the public, she said. She plans to sit down with her command staff to analyze survey responses.

The survey asks officers questions about what changes and improvements they’d like to see and seeks suggestions on how she can be the best police chief for them.

Stewart said she hopes the survey will help her identify how to improve officers’ morale and wellbeing, so, in turn, they can be better public servants for Evanston.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. It seems to me like a problem that only 9% of our law enforcement officers live in Evanston. Are there any kinds of incentives or grants the city can locate to help find ways to relocate more officers to Evanston? All of our municipal employees should be members of our community and residents, not just the people on top.