Evanston Police Chief Schenita Stewart said Monday night that her department is currently taking a look at regulations and policies for pulling people over for traffic stops.
Such stops are once again a nationwide issue following the Memphis beating death of motorist Tyre Nichols last month, which has led to murder charges against five police officers.
Chief Stewart answered questions at a public safety forum sponsored by the local branch of the NAACP, at the Second Baptist Church downtown.
One community member asked the chief that with so many cameras and other technology such as license plate readers, “can you reduce traffic stops to almost nothing?”
While “almost nothing” seems unrealistic, as guns and drugs are often found during what starts out as a routine stop, Stewart still said that EPD is reviewing if any changes in traffic stop policies can be implemented.
She also noted that the number of traffic stops has already declined in recent years.
The Rev. Michael Nabors, president of the Evanston/North Shore NAACP branch, said for Black and brown people traffic stops are “something our white allies should know that we think about every day, 365 days a year.”
Nabors also said today’s younger generation is “very different” than those who grew up 30 or 40 years ago.
He said that while children in the 1950s and 60s were always told to “do what a cop says,” teens and young adults now are more likely to say “I know my rights. What did I do wrong?”
Nabors argued that today’s police officers should “not be offended if a 16-year-old raises his voice.”
De-escalation in cases like that, he noted, is critical.
Nabors also stressed that there has been a declaration of shared principles by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the NAACP, calling for transparency and trust-building.
Chief Stewart said that “accountability is huge.”
“When there is officer misconduct,” she added, that officer must receive the appropriate disciplinary measure or even prison if necessary.
Stewart and Nabors both agreed that community education is critical, so police officers and often marginalized Black and brown communities get to know each other better.
Stewart also said the school resource officers stationed at Evanston Township High School are now wearing civilian clothing like detectives, instead of patrol uniforms. The idea is to help build rapport with students, while still having a police presence.
The chief seems to be off to a good start in Evanston. One audience member said the EPD is doing a “wonderful job,” and many of the 75 others at the event broke into applause.
Stewart said the city’s new police contract should help recruit more officers, thanks to a pay hike. EPD, she said, had been “gutted” in recent years as officers left for better paying departments, or communities where they felt more appreciated.
Stewart also said that despite efforts at bridge-building, sometimes police work may not look very pretty.
When one community member asked about “militarization of policing,” Stewart said “you’ve still got real crime in Evanston. Either you want the police or you don’t.”
There may be minor nuisance calls, she added, “or there could be a shooting like a couple of years ago on Howard Street, where you need heroic police officers to respond.”