Michael Jones has been an Evanston police officer for quite awhile. He’s seen the ups, and the downs.
On Thursday night, Jones told a 4th Ward meeting at Robert Crown Center that police department morale is “the highest its been in seven or eight years.”
Jones is the community officer who is the police liaison with the ward, which includes a portion of downtown.
He said a key reason for better morale is “we’ve got a new police chief.”
The hiring of Schenita Stewart for that position, Jones said, is “the best thing that’s happend to the EPD since I’ve been here,” which is about 15 years.
Another plus, Jones said, is the swearing in of seven new officers — two lateral hires from other departments and five rookies.
Jones said things should continue to improve, to the point that “we’ll be on the top of policing on the North Shore” in the not-too-distant future.
Even with those new hires, however, the police force is still about 20 officers below authorized strength, which makes it a challenge to respond to all citizen needs.
There are still not enough officers to allow for bicycle and foot patrols, the type of police visibility that makes many people feel safe.
Several residents at the meeting complained about aggressive panhandling by what appears to be homeless individuals, and/or those who are mentally ill.
One community member said alders should make safety “a priority rather than the 15 cent tax on bags,” a reference to an issue currently before City Council.
4th ward resident Joe Rocheleau described being accosted recently by someone who cursed, called him names, and threatened to “take him down.”
Another resident said the city should install cameras in a variety of locations, to help deter crime, or at least provide proof if something happens.
Jones said cameras can be a deterrent, but “a camera is not a witness in court.” The visuals can only be used, he said, to corroborate the account of a witness who testifies, not simply as a stand-alone piece of evidence.
He said those who are accosted or threated need to sign a complaint.
Neighborhood organizations must send the message that “we are a zero tolerance ward,” Jones added.
He also said that some businesses, like Walgreens, are “fed up” with panhandlers, while others, like Trader Joes and Jewel seem more willing to let individuls ask customers for money on store property.
Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), who held the ward meeting, stressed that public safety is a priority for him.
He said that citizen complaints about panhandling-related crime, whether a scary threat or a violent act, are absolutely legitimate.
However, Nieuwsma also noted that even though many complaints are directed at individuals who are homeless, allowing the Margarita Inn to remain as a shelter is better than leaving people with noplace to go.
“I really feel that the Margarita Inn is part of the answer here,” he said.
“The benefits far outweight the negatives.”
Whomever may be committing crimes, the police who respond are noticing a shift in public attitudes about law enforcement.
“Two years ago,” community officer Jones said, “people were saying we don’t want police to have high visibility contact with the public.”
Now, he observed, it’s just the opposite.