Evanston Police scrambled to fill 12-hour shifts last month, leading to an August 4 announcement that the department’s Community Policing Unit (CPU) would be deployed to patrol to address a severe staff shortage.
The Evanston Police Department announced in a press release that five members – four officers and one sergeant – of the unit were being reassigned to patrol for what is expected to be a minimum 60-day temporary duty.
“This drastic measure is necessary due to the continuing shortage of staff faced by the Department,” the press release said.
The officers relocated to the unit are among the most visible in the city. In many ways, they serve as the face of the EPD to the public. At ward meetings, council members often turn to officers present to provide information on recent crime trends, and officers provide insightful analysis and suggest steps community members can take to better protect themselves.
“It’s a group of people who work hard and have done what the department asked,” Acting Police Chief Richard Eddington said during an Aug. 5 interview in his office on the second floor of the station. “And this is a significant request for a temporary period of time, and I realized [from the response to the news release] there is consternation in the community.
“But at the end of the day, to police a city of 75,000 people, you need cops,” he said. “So you need police officers in the patrol division. Hopefully, as people complete their field training program, we can start replacing people at the CPU. But that depends on many factors.”
One factor is achieving some level of assurance that there are enough police officers to fill a 12-hour shift, he said.
In the month of July alone, the department had 47 hires – when officers were either called back to work or put off to work another six hours so the police could have 10 people working the shift.
If the team were closer to adequate, in a typical month the department could make 10 hires, Eddington estimated.
Police refer to a “relief factor” in filling shifts, which means having enough officers available to work so the department doesn’t find itself in short supply, Eddington said.
“So on our 12-hour shift relief factor, if I really expect 10 people to be there, I need 18 people,” he said.
Right now, with 13, 14 or 15 people available, there is little scope, he said.
One immediate consideration “is that there is no extra training [authorized]. It would be rare,” Eddington said in the interview. “If someone gets extra training now, it would cause them to be rehired, which would make the situation worse for the team, so we are trying to avoid that as much as possible.
“The other issue [to fielding a shift right now] is that no one else gets hurt,” he said. “No one takes another job anymore. And so we are walking in this high-speed act of personal. And it is, in my opinion, up to the chief of police to make the decisions on how best to use these resources most effectively for the community and service delivery.”
Eddington, the department’s chief from 2007 to 2018, has been drawing attention to a shortage of staff since the city called him back to lead the department in an interim role earlier this year.
As of October 27, 2021, there were 135 sworn employees and 43 civilians in the department, for a count of 178, with 19 jurors and 10 civilian vacancies, police said in a March report to the council’s Human Services committee.
‘Best bad idea’
In the press release, the police said that the staff shortage currently stands at 26 sworn vacancies and six civilian vacancies. In addition to these vacancies, there are seven sworn members and two civil members who are not available for full-fledged positions.
In his office, Eddington scored more details. Staff are unavailable because of “everything from hip and knee replacements to unrelated surgeries,” he said. “But when you have an organization the size [of Evanston’s], people get sick; people are unavailable to go full steam ahead.”
He quoted a line from the 2012 film argo when pressed for reasoning around his reassignment decision.
“’This is the best bad idea we have, sir,’” one of the actors tells the CIA director in the film, seeking approval for an attempt to take hostages out of Iran.
“There was nowhere else to go with my worry about tired cops driving patrol cars,” Eddington said, “working for 16 hours, then getting six hours off and being forced to go back to work for another 12 hours.
“We can’t hold people for a full double shift – 24 hours – it’s just not feasible,” he said. “Also, [in] trying to fill half shift, there’s [are] other complications that have to do with fatigue that I have to be aware of – in the context of not just, ‘Is this how I should treat employees?’ but also keeping an eye on the village coffers. If I’m the boss, allowing decisions that cause fatigued officers to show up, and something goes wrong, the city will pay. And that’s why I’m trying to avoid these situations. And part of that is about getting the CPU back on patrol for approximately 60 days. So we hope to stabilize the workforce, get enough people out of a field training program to start relocating those people back to the CPU.”
Staffing is an issue for law enforcement agencies across the country, but Evanston is particularly affected, Eddington said in the interview.
“Unfortunately, in the Evanston area, we are in a very competitive environment for law enforcement services, and there are a substantial number of suburbs willing to pay substantial dollars to hack our trained personnel,” Eddington said.
“When you have it, literally [the] Police Department backbones come out with five to 11 years of experience, which is extremely difficult to replace,” he said, “because they’re not just walking out the door with their basic training, but the substantial investment the department has put into those. intermediate years.”
Just working on the technology needed for everything from tracking weapons to analyzing cellphone logs can require extensive training. For example, he said, sending an officer for advanced training on how to extract data from cell phones can cost $3,800 and last a week.
“At least five of the officers who went through the training are among those who left the department,” he said. “So not only do we have to replace these people over time, but we also have to replace this sophisticated technical training.”
As for some of the factors at play in the exodus of officers, he named the state’s two-tier pension system. A large number of the department’s core staff are two-tier pensioners, he said, which essentially means their pensions are transportable to any other Illinois county.
The state’s adoption of the pension system in 2011 “looks good on paper, but then reality hits and we create a system where every day is a free market,” Eddington said during the interview. “I mean, baseball was at least smart enough to restrict it to part of the season. Clearly, the politicians in Springfield weren’t, and so we’re dealing with, on any given day, one of the excellent police officers who work for the City of Evanston walking into my office. [and saying], ‘Hey boss, I have an offer from Arlington Heights, Palatine, Geneva, St. Charles, Barrington Hills…. I’m going to get 12 grand more, and, you know, everybody likes the police out there. I’m sorry. See you later.”
Chaos is a factor, says boss
He says he believes that the turmoil on display in the city, as in the search for the municipal manager, can also affect police decisions.
“First of all, the city has gone through a terribly horrible and chaotic period,” he said. “And when there’s chaos at the top, it’s like a virus that runs through the entire organization. And I think we continue to be impacted by that.
“One of the things I don’t think everyone has embraced,” he said, “is [that] when we flaunt our toxic environment, it’s a disservice to recruiting, from top to bottom – whether you’re talented enough to be a city manager or a kid fresh out of the military or college who wants to be The Police [officer].
“People are smart enough to protect their own interests and say, ‘Do I want to jump into the sandstorm?’ or ‘What other options do I have?
There is another, perhaps more basic, factor – the money a jurisdiction is willing to pay.
Earlier this year, Evanston employees, including Eddington, negotiated a settlement with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents police officers, over retention and side referral bonuses.
Evanston officials are expected to negotiate employment contracts with three main groups of employees later this year – firefighters, public works and police.
“When officers on duty look outside and say, ‘What are my promotion opportunities, what are my pay opportunities, what are my opportunities here versus there? And if I’m going to be a 25-year-old ranger, do I want to be a 25-year-old ranger who earns 100,000 or 125,000?’”
In the statement announcing the transfer, the EPD said the move must last a minimum of 60 days. Eddington said the department anticipates taking several people out of the field training program later this month or early next month, and that there are a few other additions possible.
For now, however, “it is [the CPU reassignments] a difficult decision,” he said. “We are trying to mitigate it in a number of ways. We will ensure that officers who have been transferred provide their hours to elected officials [they normally work with]. So if you really want to see this cop, here’s his slack pattern.”
In addition, “They will be in the community, doing the things that brought them to this unit – this contact with the public, this ability to interact with people. So it’s not like I said, ‘Go drive around and write speeding tickets.’ No, they’ll be out there doing what they did before, at a different time. And, yes, they will have a load of calls they didn’t have before. But in this particular situation, we’ve reached a point where the department can’t manage patient calls and other events without using that manpower temporarily.”