Three finalists for police chief present different pathways for change

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Migdalia Bulnes. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

Migdalia Bulnes is currently Deputy Chief of the Chicago Police Department and has logged 24 years of continuous service with CPD.

Offering advice to other officers, she said she will tell them when it comes to defusing a tense situation, the biggest tool is not their weapon. Rather, it is their voice. “If you use it correctly and correctly, you can win extreme situations,” Bulnes said.

Joshua Hunt. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

Joshua Hunt, Chief of Investigations for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, says he is “terrified” by statistics showing law enforcement across the country is losing 200 officers a year to suicide.

This number highlights the importance of mental health in the performance of their duties, he said. “If we don’t take care of our officers inside the walls of the Evanston Police Department, how can we expect them to take proper care of community service?” He asked.

Schenita Stewart. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

Schenita Stewart, Deputy Chief Constable of the East Dundee Police Department, grew up in Evanston and brings 23 years of law enforcement experience, much of it in the village of Lincolnwood. To some degree, in an administrative role, “you’re doing operational stuff on the inside, and that’s management,” she said.

On the other hand, “you have to get out of the office,” she said. “You have to be the face of the organization. You should take every opportunity to engage the audience. I don’t care if it’s the first day of school and I’m hanging out with other officers helping kids get to school. I don’t care if it’s going to have lunch and make positive contact with someone. Every day I try to hire someone new and build a good relationship.

The three finalists offered their ideas during a virtual forum Sept. 8, held as part of the city’s search for its next police chief.

Sol Anderson, CEO/President of the Evanston Community Foundation, conducted nearly hour-long interviews that, while shedding light on the nominees’ backgrounds, also highlighted the changing nature of policing and the willingness of new leaders to consider methods. other than force to counter violence.

The three candidates were also asked about the Evanston Police Department’s staffing shortages and loss of police department officers and what steps they would take to turn the tide.

Interviews were conducted individually with each candidate for the forum. Sometimes more than 50 people followed online. The interviews can be viewed in full on the city’s YouTube channel. Here are some excerpts from the candidates’ responses.

Q: What are your thoughts on the urgency of bringing the department to full staff and what would you do to increase hiring?

Stewart: I think it’s the no. 1 problem right now, and I know it’s a national problem and everyone is dealing with recruiting, hiring, retention. But I think that’s unique right now in Evanston. We have to get to the bottom of it and see why people are leaving. I would like to approach this by listening to the staff – loyal people who work for this police department, who have been through a pandemic, civil unrest, and who still work here every day, and you want to surround them and give them the right personnel to address community concerns.

Hunt: I’d hate to say it’s the most important thing [the understaffing], because there are about a dozen of the most important things and this one is essential. We have lost almost two dozen agents and it is dangerous, very dangerous, both for the community and for the agents. It’s dangerous in a real increase in crime, but it’s dangerous for officers’ mental and physical problems.

I think the first step is to work with the city government to look at our pay scale and our appeal to side officers [Evanston officers who left for other departments]. Evanston has lost a lot of officers to neighboring departments and I think part of the search is to contact those same officers from those departments and find out what caused the [other] much more attractive community. And we have to have those conversations and really listen to what they’re saying, and then put those responses into action.

And I think there are long-term investments and long-term planning that I think will also help offset the downturn. One examines the viability of Community Service Officers – unarmed representatives of the Police Department who can work to free up some of our sworn law enforcement officers’ time so they can spend their day focusing proactively on safety.

Bulbs: I would like to see the police back to their proper staffing levels – levels where we are able to get everyone back to where they belong: detective division, community policing. We’re staffing all of that, so we know better when the officers are going into the communities. With all of this, I think staffing [through] recruitment will be my no. 1 priority entry in the department. I believe that if you staff your department and train it, that’s the real source you’ll need to go and join the community.

The first lesson is to go out there and tap into the spirit of the community. My whole motto was, in recruiting…everyone is a recruiter, not just the police, not just my team. So have them [community members] help us is just a victory for me.

Q: What would you do if you found yourself in charge of police officers with a significant gap in de-escalation skills?

Hunt: It’s through training, but it’s also through repetition [that a department addresses the problem]. And create a culture that believes in philosophy. You can train people as much as they want, but if they don’t believe in what they’re learning, it’s going to be a harder concept to grasp. So to show the Evanston cops – certainly most of them have already figured this out – that there’s real value in de-escalation, both right now and in the days and weeks follow as you build positive relationships in the community. This de-escalation works, and it absolutely works. And I think the police, for hundreds of years, haven’t done that. They did the opposite. And let’s face it, it doesn’t work. It’s time for a change.

Bulbs: De-escalation is our 100% friend. If used correctly and correctly, you will be able to win situations on the street. You can take a situation that’s here and then bring it back here [from high intensity to low]. I was here. I know it works. So I think we have to get the police to train and make sure that it’s not a one-off training. It is a training that continues every year. It should be a training block.

Currently, Chicago has [it] every year. I think we are until… 32 hours. The officers are looking for this. They are looking for training or looking for someone to say “OK, what would I do in this situation?” And we, as leaders, have to provide it to them.

Stewart: Training should be a constant, regardless of the area in which it takes place. [There’s] no reason to hide it. You need to be transparent, open and honest with this. De-escalation should be part of… your policies, even at the point of security. With the SAFETY law [the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity Act passed by the Illinois legislature in 2021] in addition to reform, there will be constant training. We need to take advantage of it and officers need to be prepared to understand that it is part of their job.

Q: What steps could be taken to address the violence that has recently affected neighborhoods in Evanston?

Bulbs: I think it’s important to do a lot of analysis of what’s going on in the communities. Even when I was just a commander we had ShotSpotter [a platform that is highly data-driven] and we may have pointed to an analysis of ‘OK, that’s what’s happening here. It is he who directs the violence. This person is released from prison. This is what is happening. So behind this whole concept, we know who is causing the violence. There are probably some people who drive the violence.

Citizens must feel safe to go to McDonald’s. Citizens need to feel safe walking around the park or having a party in their backyard. There’s no reason for anyone to say, ‘Well, I don’t feel safe, so I’m not going to do it.’ So taking all the data-based analysis that we do, looking at crime where it’s happening, and looking at who is driving the violence. [Then] it’s controllable and we’re starting to reach out to these people and let them know that “we know who you are”. These are your options.

Stewart: One victim is too many victims. You know, that’s where this partnership [with the community] Between. Let’s be honest: it’s a small minority of people who commit these crimes, who have these weapons. We must tackle the address [those] and not everyone in this room.

You want to work with your federal programs – ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], the FBI. We have to realize that there is [are] victims, families of victims who deserve to be in a community where they feel safe and where there is no violence. This is where we want to arrive, without any violence. So no [limited] second or fifth ward, where I grew up. I want to examine all the neighborhoods and ensure the safety of the city as a whole.

Hunt: Evanston has been devastated by some truly horrific gun violence in recent weeks where children have been shot dead. It is absolutely unacceptable. I believe there are systemic issues. But we also take getting guns out of people’s hands very seriously…and [accomplishing] it’s through hard work and proactive, intelligence-led policing that focuses on the targets…those who are behind the crime.

So it’s a [approach]. But the other, as you’ve seen, is making those investments and building those relationships with the police and everybody else on that [affected] to block. The crime is usually perpetrated by a very small percentage. …So, through effective community engagement and relationship building with the remaining 99% of neighborhood residents. If you put them on your side, you put them on the side of the police, it becomes much easier and you gain the trust of this community to help you.

The forum can be viewed in its entirety on Evanston’s YouTube channel and it will also be rebroadcast on the city’s Channel 16.

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