Police Chief Schenita Stewart says police and other agencies face an array of challenges in dealing with the apparently increasing number of mentally ill and homeless people in Evanston.
“It’s not illegal to be crazy,” Stewart told residents at The Mather Wednesday afternoon. “It’s not illegal to want to harm yourself. No law says you have to be sane.”
“We have to have something criminal done to arrest you, have to have probable cause,” she added.
Stewart, who’s 49, said that when she was young and growing up in Evanston she had experience with mental health issues in her own family.
“We’d be told ‘Daddy’s going to be gone for a little bit, he’s not doing well.’ Then he’d be back home and ‘Daddy’s fine,” she said.
“We had facilities then that dealt with that. We don’t have those any more. State and federal funds and resources are gone, so we have a lot more people (with mental health issues) in public.”
Asked about proposals under consideration to send social workers rather than police officers to respond to mental health calls, Stewart said she favors a co-responder model that would have police respond along with social workers.
“You can’t replace police officers,” Stewart said. “That’s defunding, no matter how you try to call it. But we can co-exist and do this together.”
Stewart, who’s nine-and-a-half months into her job heading the Evanston department, said, it was down 28 officers when she arrived and still has 20 unfilled positions.
She says the city was losing officers because it wasn’t paying them well enough. She helped negotiate a new four-year contract that gives patrol officers an 18% pay hike the first year with 3% increases each year after that.
“We’re not like other suburbs,” Stewart said. “We have real crime — carjackings, armed violence. And our pay didn’t show that. It didn’t show we respected the officers.”
Stewart says it’s taking time to fill the vacant positions because “we want to get the right people coming here to police the city. We need the same core values.”
Beyond pay, another issue in recruiting officers, the chief indicated, has been Evanston’s undersized, 74-year-old police station.
Stewart says she wants a new station, but doesn’t care where it’s located.
“I don’t care if it’s on one end of town or the other,” she said. “Put it wherever the land is.”
“We shouldn’t be responding from the station,” she added. “After roll call you should be on the street on your beat.”
Update 8:50 p.m. 7/27/23: Chief Stewart this evening emailed the following note regarding her word choice at Wednesday’s meeting:
“I apologize for my insensitive word choices referring to those living with mental illness.
My intent was to communicate the limits of police authority and convey my belief that those facing mental health issues should not be policed based on their illness. Moving forward, I will be more thoughtful with my language.”