Mayor Daniel Biss embraced police reform and new efforts to address racial inequality in Evanston when he answered questions at Tuesday night’s Central Street Neighbors Association town hall meeting.

Resident Michael Hartnett said people who support defunding the police are essentially for police abolition, and he asked Biss to disavow such demands.

Biss said he favors redirecting funds to professionals, such as mental healthcare workers, who can take over emergency situations from the police, But he acknowledged that police are necessary for responding to certain dangerous public safety crises.

He argued that “the militarization of our police, the utilization of surplus military equipment, which is something that we do here in Evanston, is problematic.”

The example Biss gave for a use of military equipment here was an incident in which an officer carried a semi-automatic rifle from his squad car back to the police station during shift change while a demonstration was taking place in the street in front of the station.

Biss said that had been addressed with a change in procedure so that the rifles now are transported in cases during shift changes.

Moderator and CSNA Vice President Jeff Smith asked Biss about segregated housing in Evanston and what role the city should take in reversing it.

“I think racial segregation is harmful to the city of Evanston,” Biss said, “and so I think it is an appropriate policy goal for us to try to eliminate barriers to integration.”

Increasing minority residents’ access to services and resources and encouraging more-inclusive civic participation were two strategies Biss proposed for confronting Evanston’s discriminatory housing patterns.

Laurie McFarlane asked Biss about his top concerns with Evanston’s Comprehensive Plan, which was last updated in 2000.

The plan’s shortcomings in addressing racial inequality were at the top of Biss’ list. He recommended updating the plan to reflect current, more-progressive attitudes on race and segregation in the city.

Mark Sloane asked Biss about the city’s plans for its $43 million in federal COVID-relief funds.

Biss emphasized the unprecedented nature of the funding and how the city must be strategic when investing it to create future economic growth.

Greater community input will be essential to the city’s formation of an effective spending plan, Biss added.

“Because this is a once in a generation opportunity, that’s a kind of thing that’s not kind of in in our government’s muscle memory,” he said, “we want folks at the table.”

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