When anti-police protesters took to the streets in Evanston in the fall, many of the police officers brought in for crowd control were not from Evanston.

Instead, they were part of a multi-agency, mutual-aid collaborative designed for anything from natural disasters, to riots, to SWAT-like incidents and large protests.

In the wake of those protests, particularly one which turned violent on Halloween night, City Council’s Human Services Committee on Monday will discuss the role and use of NIPAS, the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, for incidents in Evanston.

The review also comes following investigative reporting about NIPAS by two Northwestern University journalism students, Alex Harrison and Zach Watson.

The pair’s stories, in the publication “Scene and Heard,” in November, raised questions about transparency and accountability for NIPAS as an organization, as well as how NIPAS officers acted while in Evanston.

The NIPAS website says the mutual assistance pact began in 1983 with 15 police agencies, and has now grown to nearly 100 suburban jurisdictions in five counties that provide officers when called upon.

The Evanston Police Department says four EPD officers are detailed to NIPAS for its Emergency Services Team (SWAT), four officers are on the NIPAS Mobile Field Force (crowd control) and one is on the NIPAS bicycle team.

Because member departments are all too small to have their own SWAT teams or have enough officers for large demonstrations or even riots, the NIPAS website says the group’s mission is about “agencies pooling their resources to provide the best service possible for the communities, the retention of local control and cost savings through the sharing of specialized equipment.”

The two student journalists, Harrison and Watson, outlined the difficulties they faced in obtaining information from NIPAS, because the organization is technically not a “public” body.

They did uncover a text message from a NIPAS officer about an Evanston crowd control event, which said “My trigger finger was jittering. As much as a shattered kneecap woulda been nice, I was not ten feet away. Pepper ball did just fine.”

In response to that, Northwestern issued a statement objecting to the language by the NIPAS officer and “threats of violence directed against students who were exercising freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

NIPAS was not called in for many of the near-daily protests by a group called “NU Community Not Cops” in mid-October through early November. Usually, Evanston police officers kept watch on the demonstrators, who called for the abolition of Northwestern’s police department.

For the most part those demonstrations were peaceful, although there were some cases of vandalism, such as windows being broken at the Whole Foods Market on Chicago Avenue.

Boarded windows at Whole Foods the morning after the Halloween night protest. It was the second time the store was vandalized during protests in less than a month. (Jeff Hirsh photo)

The largest incident, on Halloween night with many NIPAS officers on hand, saw one student arrested, a NIPAS police officer injured, and finger pointing by each side about who stepped up the level of confrontation.

According to CBS2, Evanston police blamed a group of the protesters who broke away from the main crowd as it proceeded through downtown, an EPD release describing “some protesters throwing rocks and bricks at police officers, lighting fireworks in the direction of officers’ eyes, and using umbrellas to cover individuals” who were defacing and damaging property. EPD also said officers did use pepper spray but not tear gas, as a crowd control measure.

Protesters, however, said the police went too far. In one of their reports, Harrison and Watson said “no officer or department has been held accountable for … escalations in force against the protesters.”

Whatever did happen that night, there are still questions about police training and policies, including whether the Evanston department has a different philosophy about operating in a community which is far more diverse economically, racially and demographically (with thousands of students) than perhaps what is found in other suburbs which provide NIPAS staffing.

In one of their articles, Harrison and Watson used a screen shot of a twitter message from an official of a participating NIPAS agency to an Evanston Deputy Chief (the message originally obtained by another Medill journalism student, Adam Mahoney).

The message, from around noon on October 31, from Oakbrook Terrace Deputy Chief David Clark, states that NIPAS is happy to assist Evanston with the student protests, but “we cannot continue to deploy our team at great cost to other NIPAS agencies if your agency will continue to allow this particular group to commit the extensive list of criminal offenses it already has.”

Clark asks EPS for the authority to intervene and make arrests in Evanston. “Deploying our team and forcing us to standby and watch criminal acts take place in front of us,” the text continues, “goes against our organizational goals and standards, it puts our team members in danger, it tarnishes our team’s reputation, and it makes our job much more difficult in the long run.”

Evanston Now has asked EPD Chief Demitrious Cook for a reaction to the text, but has not yet heard back.

Cook did, according to one of Harrison’s and Watson’s articles, send an email to chiefs of NIPAS member departments on Nov. 11, thanking NIPAS and saying he “appreciates the professionalism and efficient response to our calls to provide assistance with crowd control of up to 300 protesters and overall mutual aid.”

There is a budgetary component to all of the recent demonstrations as well. Under NIPAS rules, police departments responding to a call from another department pay the wages and overtime of their own officers they dispatch to the incident. That means during the weeks of protest this fall, the City of Evanston only had to cover the cost of having its own officers on the scene.

In a memo to the Human Services Committee, Louis Gergits, the police department’s budget and finance manager, says the city paid overtime of $19,585.48 to its officers handling the demonstrations and a total of $88,435.48 including regular pay to officers on the scene over the several weeks of demonstrations.

Partly in response to defund police protests, the City Council cut Evanston police staffing by nearly 10% for 2021. That could lead the city to rely even more on out-of-town police assistance at major protest events in the future.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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