An Evanston Police Department squad car at the scene of a traffic accident in June 2023.

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

That’s how a call for help is answered. But while one person’s emergency may be a true crisis — a burglar breaking in, or a shooting, another person’s emergency could be as mundane as a barking dog or loud party — annoying, but hardly life and death.

But in most cases, a police officer is sent. Perhaps not lights and siren, but still, armed police officers are the primary first responders for non-medical/non-fire calls.

Tuesday evening, Evanston’s ongoing study to “Reimagine Public Safety” holds a Town Hall forum to find out what residents think is the most appropriate emergency response, based on the circumstances of the call.

In a recent email to members of City Council, Rachel Williams, the city’s new Reimagining Public Safety administrator, said, “We’d like to get feedback from the community on community responder models and what they’re looking for, what they’re worried about and what they like or don’t like, etc.”

While the “Reimaging” effort got under way in 2021, so far it’s been more “imagining” than “doing.”

The only major change in response since then has been adding a mobile Mental Health Crisis team, run by an outside agency, Trilogy Behavioral Services.

A social work/crisis intervention team is sent on calls which often used to involve police officers.

The team serves Evanston, Skokie, and several City of Chicago neighborhoods. In 2022, 23% of the 4,000 or so calls came from Evanston. (Currently, the mental health team takes calls on 1-800-FACT-400, or via the national 9-8-8 hotline).

While not all calls actually led to an in-person response, Trilogy said that 90% of the calls/personal contacts were handled without police intervention.

As for the alternative response issue in general, at a recent 2nd Ward meeting, a variety of actual Evanston 911 calls from 2021 were presented, the idea being to think about what’s the best type of response.

Those calls ranged from suspicious persons in an alley, to a couple arguing in a car, to loud leaf blowers.

Evanston statistics analyzed by a consultant, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, showed that of about 1,200 calls which might be considered non-urgent, only 0.2% led to an arrest.

Of course, one of the potential problems is that what may seem like a minor situation could turn ugly and violent, particularly if the first responder is not armed, or does not have the power of “or else,” the power of arrest.

Several other cities have adopted alternate response policies, including college towns such as Austin, Texas, Amherst, Massachusetts, and perhaps the first and most successful program, called CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Oregon, home of the University of Oregon.

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) recently attended a conference in Colorado of the International Town/Gown Association, a group that looks into community issues in college towns, including policing.

Harris says she learned that one community’s 9-1-1 center received a lot of calls from the elderly, who may have been “confused and in need of personal attention,” but not necessarily requiring a police officer.

Harris said that community found a way to connect those individuals with social service agencies. As a result, she said, “calls decreased,” while the residents got the assistance they needed.

The hope behind alternative responses, besides better service for citizens, is to free up police officers for true emergencies, and also lessen the potential for police-community confrontations coming out of what began as a minor incident.

One of the biggest questions about alternative response systems is the cost.

For example, the Trilogy mental health response program is funded by the State of Illinois, not the City of Evanston.

Tuesday’s Community Responder Town Hall will be held at the Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd., from 5-7 p.m.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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1 Comment

  1. Agree people should not call 911 for silly issues. Non-emergency issues should use 847-866-5000, #0

    On Monday June 19th, a non-Evanstonian vagrant (name confirmed in police report) was encamped at Panera entrance.

    He began screaming and chasing a fellow resident in front of Sherman CVS. I called 911, then yelled to distract him, causing him to begin screaming and chasing me, all in the middle of Sherman Ave (Evanston’s skid row).

    I was running while speaking with the dispatcher. She kept asking me detailed administrative questions, seemingly unconcerned that this dangerous vagrant was closing on me and likely going to harm me.

    When we residents call with an active crime in process, we NEED ACTION, not a job interview.

    Evanston welcomes more and more non-resident, dangerous chronic recidivist people every day. Many openly admit that Connections and Hilda’s are the reason they come.

    How much more dangerous vagrancy can Evanston support? Why has our city council agreed to volunteer Evanston to be the regional destination for people kicked out of other communities?

    We need more police as a deterrence to meet the inflow.

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