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Demitrous Cook, when he was sworn in as Evanston's police chief in January 2019.

Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook says defunding the city’s police department could be catastrophic for providing public safety services in the community.

In an interview with Evanston Now, the chief said he “would more than welcome having more social workers” available to handle mental health issues and certain other types of calls.

“But you’ve got to look at what they can do and what would happen,” the chief said. “They’re probably going to end up calling the police anyway once they get to some of these calls.”

The City Council’s Human Services Committee Monday discussed ideas for improving responses to calls involving people with mental health and similar issues, including a model pioneered in Eugene, Oregon, of having a two-person team composed of a social worker and a nurse or other medical professional respond to such calls, rather than dispatching police officers.

The chief noted that the department, which in the past has had 165 sworn officers, was initially budget for 160 at the start of this year and as of July 1, because of a hiring freeze, was down to 150 officers.

In response to a request from Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, the chair of the Human Services Committee, the police department compiled a list of last year’s calls for service that were disposed of with a code that indicated the issue was mental-health related.

That list, provided to Evanston Now, shows a total of 510 calls out of nearly 32,000 total calls for service by police that year, or about 1.6% of the total.

Among the top categories for the nature of those calls as originally dispatched were check well being, involuntary committal, mental subject, voluntary committal and lost confused person.

And those five categories amounted to 2,653 total calls for the year, or about 8.4% of the total as initially dispatched.

Unclear from the data offered by the department is how many of the calls that were not closed out as a mental issue might have been of a different nature that a team with a medical and social work background still could have addressed.

The police department currently operates eight patrol beats 24 hours a day. If defunding led to the replacement of one of those beats with a city-wide car staffed with a social worker and a medical professional, they might be expected to have to respond to about 12.5% of total calls to maintain existing response-time standards.

Chief Cook also challenged a suggestion Monday by Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, that since marijuana has been legalized, perhaps the department no longer needs a special unit focused on drug crimes.

“Unfortunately,” the chief said, the department still needs to address the black market for drugs that creates issues and violence in communities where “these guys are selling marijuana and fentanyl-laced heroin, crack cocaine and ecstasy pills out of houses.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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