EPD to residents: Help us solve community issues

Mike Saewitz

Dressed in suits and armed with Three Musketeers candy bars, members of the Evanston Police Department issued a challenge to city community groups Thursday night: Call us with problems, help out three hours a week for five weeks, and we’ll try to solve them with you.

The future of community policing in Evanston is now in residents’ hands, a panel of two EPD officers and two residents told about 10 officers and more than 70 community members at a citywide forum, “Building Your Neighborhood’s Capacity to Solve Problems.”

“Times are changing,” said panel member and Evanston resident Cheryl Chukwy. “Police cannot do everything we’re asking them to do. We need to be realistic – what can we do on our part?”

Cmdr. Dennis Nilsson and Sgt. Sam Pettineo – EPD officers who have overseen successful community policing programs in about 20 Illinois communities – presented problem-solving diagrams to turn residents on to a six-step program intended to help neighborhoods organize, pinpoint and analyze a problem, and attempt to solve it.

“One for all, and all for one,” Nilsson said. “We must come to the table as the Three Musketeers.”

The Three Musketeers is a metaphor for the three-pronged partnership between an organized community, dedicated police officers and a supportive government that must exist to ensure the program’s success.

The officers said in order to participate in the program, residents must be able to organize a group of citizens willing to devote two or three hours for four or five Saturday meetings.

The program will help residents localize issues, Nilsson said, rather than try to solve “national” problems.

“If we try to solve the drug problem in Evanston, we’re going to get nowhere,” Nilsson said. Instead, the program must focus on specific concerns, like slum lords or the absence of youth programs.

The panel – which compared a mouse trying to eat an elephant to one individual trying to solve a problem – attempted to rally residents around organizing as the first step to success.

“How do you eat an elephant?” Nilsson asked. “One bite at a time.”

“The more people you have eating the elephant, the more quickly it’ll disappear,” said lifetime Evanston resident Joan Hickman, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Pettineo said the forum marked the new ability of the police department to commit to the program.

“We hadn’t been able to do that because of change of personnel,” Pettineo said.

Now that many of the new officers are trained in the program, “we now feel comfortable in bringing it to the communities,” he said.

Pettineo said many of the community members at the forum had been fighting problems for years but without a clear vision and localized issue.

“They did it backwards,” he said. “It’s time to educate everyone on how this program works.”

Pettineo said he is “optimistic” about the kind of response the forum will elicit. He said if community groups were to express interest in working with him, the only step would be to coordinate dates and meeting times.

“It doesn’t take much more than that,” he said.

Jason Hays, who moved to Evanston last year, said he thinks residents in his neighborhood will rise to the police department’s challenge.

“As new people move in, new people are getting involved,” he said.

Other residents were not so optimistic.

“I’ve sat in on a lot of these meetings, and I don’t want to be cynical,” Hickman said, “but unless there’s some real follow-up, nothing’s going to change. The chief will do the necessary follow-ups, but Evanston’s a very lethargic community. When nothing’s happening, you can’t get people to come out and do anything.”

Bennett Johnson, executive director of Evanston/North Shore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the problem with the forum is that it “leaves out people who are the source of conflict.” The program needs to involve people who “have access to antisocial groups,” he said.