Participants in the  panel discussion on policing in Evanston, clockwise from top left are Adam Marquardt, Dr. Christopher Harris, Prof. Sheila Bedi, City Clerk Devon Reid, Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Ameya Pawar.
RoundTable photo
Participants in the panel discussion on policing in Evanston, clockwise from top left are Adam Marquardt, Dr. Christopher Harris, Prof. Sheila Bedi, City Clerk Devon Reid, Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Ameya Pawar. RoundTable photo

The police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and their reverberations across this country have brought Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook into the spotlight as a Black law enforcement official.

In public forums this month and in a follow-up conversation with the RoundTable, Chief Cook talked about Evanston police practices, civil rights, police reform and the Evanston community.  Some needed reforms, he said, are “well overdue.”

At the June 7 rally organized by Black Evanston Men, Chief Cook said, “I didn’t give up my Blackness for this white shirt … I didn’t give up my Blackness to the people of this community.”

Just over two weeks later, on June 16, City Clerk Devon Reid hosted a FaceBook Live discussion with Chief Cook, Northwestern University law professor Sheila Bedi, Northwestern University African American Studies Professor Christopher Harris, Open Society Foundation Fellow and former Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar and 2018 Evanston Township High School graduate Adam Marquardt.

Practices and Policies of the EPD

Prof. Bedi and Mr. Reid questioned Chief Cook about Evanston Police Department practices and policies.

“Are no-knock warrants allowed in Evanston?” asked Mr. Reid.

Chief Cook responded, “No-knock warrants are allowed. You have to have consent from a judge to have a no-knock warrant. … You have to present reasons it’s justified. … We might recognize the elements” that justify asking for a no-knock warrant, he said, but the State’s Attorney and a judge determine whether or not a no-knock warrant will be issued.

Prof. Bedi brought up use of chokeholds and use of force on people who are fleeing. Chief Cook said his department does not allow chokeholds or “anything that cuts off the breathing or affects a person’s airway.”

He said the Evanston Police Department follows the “industry standard” and added, “But just because it’s industry standard doesn’t meant that’s what people want. He referred to the Justice in Policing Act, and appeared to acknowledge that Evanstonians might demand more of its police department than just complying with industry standards.

Prof. Bedi said reforms such as banning chokeholds are “wholly inadequate” and are simply “harm reduction.”

“Every use of force requires a ‘use of force report’,” said the Chief. “It details the information on who the force was utilized against, the officers that used it [and] the officers who were around.”

Mr. Reid asked whether the City purchases military-grade weapons.

Chief Cook named several weapons the department uses: AR-15s, which he said are semi-automatic military rifles, Tasers, shotguns, and “just on-duty weapons,” which are side-arms.

Mr. Reid then asked whether Evanston Police Officers are “encouraged to take predator-style training – which teaches officers to view folks as combatants – to make officers potentially comfortable with killing someone?”

Chief Cook said, “We use minimal force to affect an arrest. Hopefully, that is just talking. We do have defensive tactics training but in no way does it teach you to kill someone … In training with respect to handguns, we follow State qualifications.”

“Under the law,” he said, “we are required to use the force necessary to effect an arrest,” adding, “We hope it’s talk. That’s where the de-escalation is – being able to use your verbal skills. I’ve been in law enforcement 40 years, but at no time have I been instructed to kill.”

The City pays for officers to receive training at Force Science Institute in Des Plaines. “It [Force Science Training] teaches how to view and analyze the dynamics of use-of-force incidents,” said the Chief. He added that Force Science Training is “defensive tactics training. … In no way does it teach you to kill someone.”

Prof. Bedi argued against Force Science Training, and said she disagreed with the Chief about the validity of the program. She said the training comes into play when officers do not have time in a high-stress situation to process and evaluate a threat. “The science behind it has been largely debunked. …  It generally justifies the killing of unarmed people. … It’s used to cover up bad policing,” she said.

Chief Cook said he did not agree with Prof. Bedi’s assessment of Force Science Training and said, “It teaches you about yourself, about your reaction to stimuli like someone firing at you.”

Community Policing or ‘Community Invasions’?

Prof. Bedi and Dr. Harris spoke of the need to address the deeper systemic issues such as the conditions in communities that result in what she termed are “invasions by police” in the first place.

Dr. Harris said, "We've not had the types of reform necessary to put more power into the community to police themselves. … Put power into the hands of people being policed." 

Mr. Marquardt questioned whether community policing benefits the Evanston community and said, “It’s an invasive police presence in the Fifth Ward.”

Mr. Pawar appeared to oppose even certain types of police-civilian interaction that do not lead to arrests. He said that, when he was a Chicago alderman, he voted against the police academy. “The FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] – the union that represents officers – was scary, downright frightening. We need to address the demand for blind allegiance to public-safety institutions. When that becomes the culture, the amount of training money doesn’t matter,” he said.

Dr. Harris said that local police unions make it difficult to hold officers accountable when they commit crimes. “I can speak to the national power of local police unions, which severely inhibit police accountability. … The structure is about protecting officers, not communities. In the way they collectively bargain, police unions have historically been a barrier towards change,” he said.

“I understand how the Chicago Police Department works. Reformed criminals understand the element of violence in Black neighborhoods,” said Chief Cook. “Hey, I’m a Black man. I’m what you’re all talking about. … I grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago,”” said the Chief.

He also said, “I agree with a lot of things in the pipeline with respect to reform. … A lot of people don’t know about police tactics. I’m not going to let a union stop me from terminating an officer when he’s done something wrong. … I’m just trying to bring light to my profession, as you would do with your profession. I’m prepared to listen. … There’s an amount of violence in America that police face every day.” He also cited his six years of serving as vice president of the Chicago chapter of NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement.

Reform on the Horizon

Chief Cook said he felt there should be “a lot more problem-solving, a lot more communication with organizations” that are equipped to handle certain social crises.

Dr. Harris suggested a shift to the concept of “community control” rather than a focus on “defund and abolish police.” Examples of areas where improvement is needed are responses to mental health calls and to violations of the shelter-in-place order.

“I try to mitigate violence through networking,” said the Chief. He also said that in some cases, it is better to wait a day to arrest someone if an immediate arrest is likely to become violent.

In a June 19 interview with the RoundTable, Chief Cook said, “My goal is to have the police officers interacting in a positive way with a lot of institutions, such as the school districts, in the way they want it to happen, not how we want it to happen.  How does the school district want to interact with the police? How does the resident want to interact with the police in this town? Do they like our style of partnership policing and problem-solving? These are some of the things that we have to reform.”

Chief Cook said at the June 16 town hall meeting, “I know people have fears about the police,” he said. “My thing is always to try to bridge those gaps of fear.  “That’s why we decentralized the complaint process.”

Now people can file a complaint online or at the Civic Center, once it reopens.  That process began under Chief Eddington in recognition that having to go to the Police Department to file a complaint against a police officer could keep some from filing a complaint and be intimidating to those who did file one.

Asked about the number of complaints, Chief Cook told the RoundTable, “We had a decline, and then we got an increase.” He said he hopes the increase in the number of complaints reflects a greater trust and comfort level in filing complaints.

The Evanston Police Department targeted stop-and-frisk program is over.  “Halting stop-and-frisk was the first thing I did,” Chief Cook said. When he returned to Evanston after having been away for eight years, he said, “I looked at the stop-and-frisk. We had about 800 stop-and-frisks in 2018 and about 600 of them were Black people. “You know, any time you have an impact on any particular group – when it’s over-policing any group – you have to correct that right away.”

Chief Eddington’s administration implemented a “targeted” stop-and-frisk program in 2013, with the approval of the Fifth Ward and Second Ward aldermen. The program was touted as a way to get illegal weapons off the street.

“The problem with that,” Chief Cook told the RoundTable, is ‘Who are you stopping?’ You don‘t want to be randomly stopping and frisking any group. So if you have a justifiable reason to do that – other than ‘I think you may have a gun’ but no real proof – you don’t want to do that.”

Near the end of the June 16 town hall meeting, Chief Cook said he would ask some of the panelists for their input about potential reforms to the Evanston Police Department. “Attorney Bedi is really profound in her civil rights litigation. We need to understand that in our Police Department. … I can utilize you all in understanding the other side of where we’re trying to get to,” he said.

Dr. Harris said these are times for “radical imagining. … I think that we have an opportunity to come together in this moment and to re-imagine how we relate to one another, to re-imagine what we invest in. We’re in a moment where we can think collectively of who we would like to be as a community and as a country.”

Chief Cook told the RoundTable on June 19, “I think law enforcement tends to not really understand why people are talking the way they are.  And I think when you have the academic world, people that are capable of articulating a particular stance that society is [taking] with respect to Black Lives Matter. Some of the things they perceive as negative [are things] the police may not necessarily see. Professor Bedi is a civil rights attorney. What better person to help educate the Police Department in that area than one of our own professors from Northwestern University? … And I was really inspired with how Dr. Harris was able to articulate the issues and was really mellow – he wasn’t antagonistic. What I do recognize is that we have great talent in this town. We have great academic resources, and I don’t think we have to look too far in this to find solutions.”