Evanston’s first female police chief shares her top priorities: community relations, staffing, officer welfare

Rows of family photographs surround the office of Schenita Stewart, the new chief of the Evanston Police Department. After 23 years of service, Stewart made history as the first woman to serve as permanent police chief in Evanston. The city appointed her to the post after two acting chiefs and a year reference research only.

The appointment of women to positions of power in the police services seems contagious. At the Oak Park Police Department, Shatonya Johnson was named the first female police chief on Tuesday.

In every office where new EPD chief Schenita Stewart has worked, she always keeps pictures of her loved ones handy. Credit: Gina Castro

Stewart, who most recently served as deputy chief of the East Dundee Police Department, comes from generations of Evanstonians.

She grew up playing basketball at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center and graduated from Evanston Township High School. Many in the community affectionately refer to him as “Twin”, in reference to his coming into the world as part of a package deal with his sister, Oak Park Police Department Commander Schonella Stewart.

Schenita Stewart recalls her grandfather’s advice that led her to a police career.

Her grandfather, William H. Stewart, spotted a newspaper ad seeking to hire officers for the Lincolnwood Police Department and told her she had to apply. At the time, Stewart had recently earned a degree in criminal justice from Illinois State University.

A photo of his beloved grandfather, who died in 2006, hangs by his office window. His fists are raised in a playful boxing stance. A black and white photograph of his mother, Christine Jay, lies nearby.

These photos follow her to each of her job offers, as a reminder of where she comes from, Stewart said. Now they’ve come full circle, back to the community that she says raised her.

“I have to show that there are female minorities in this profession who have great leadership skills, great resumes,” Stewart said. “My background, my curriculum vitae, my experience explain why I hold this position. And I hope that in the future, more City Managers will give qualified candidates the same fair chance to be Chiefs of Police and Deputy Chiefs nationwide.

The Round Table recently met with Stewart in his office. Although she has only been in office since Oct. 10, she shared her three priorities as police chief: community relations, staffing and officer welfare.

Community partnerships

Just 9% of members of the department live in Evanston, according to the EPD Transparency Hub. Many cities in the United States require law enforcement officers to live within the city limits of the community they serve. Chicago had this requirement for almost a century.

Stewart was previously Deputy Chief of the East Dundee Police Department. Credit: Gina Castro

Stewart said the EPD’s volunteer work in the community, especially with youth, compensates for officers who don’t live in the city.

She doesn’t think the fact that the majority of officers live outside the community affects the service they provide.

“I’m proud of the commitment our officers make outside of their day-to-day responsibilities here,” Stewart said.

Stewart also blames the housing market for making it difficult for law enforcement to afford to live within the city limits of Evanston.

When asked what she thinks of EPD’s current relationship with the community, Stewart said the relationship could be better. But she said building trust with the community is something police departments should always be working on, whether the relationship looks good or not.

“We have to get out there and take the time to rebuild those relationships,” Stewart said. “It’s my job as a leader to try to empower our people to have opportunities to develop those relationships.”

The EPD’s Administrative Coordinator, Janella Hardin, is Chief Stewart’s right-hand man. Credit: Gina Castro

To help develop his own relationship with the community, Stewart organizes a Coffee with the chef series. These events will take place in the various neighborhoods and begin at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, November 2 at Colectivo Coffee, 716 Church St., in the First Ward.

Stewart hopes the meeting will give the community an opportunity to bring their concerns directly to him. She also hopes to start volunteering at the non-profit FAAM. She said she had benefited from FAAM’s work growing up here. This organization provides a nurturing environment for college students interested in basketball and cheerleading.

Another initiative Stewart is working on is informing families of crime victims about the status of their cases. She plans to call the mothers of victims of unsolved homicides to give them an update.

Personnel crisis

The department is in the midst of a staff shortage crisis, Stewart confirmed. Shortage of 26 vacancies under oath and six civilian positions, according to an August EPD Press release.

This shortage resulted in officers from the Community Policing Unit being temporarily reassigned. Stewart was not the police chief when this decision was made, but she said: “I support this decision because the community wants people to respond to these 911 calls, and we need the bodies to respond to these calls.”

The Community Policing Unit is not the only unit affected, Stewart said. The Investigations Unit was also exhausted.

The shortage, Stewart said, is a national issue with recruiting and retaining law enforcement personnel. This problem has been compounded by justified criticism of police violence and mistreatment in the United States, she said.

Stewart said she is working to find solutions to the department’s staffing issues. Currently, she is working to make the hiring process more effective and efficient.

Staffing shortages mean overstretched current law enforcement, Stewart said. It is detrimental to officers’ well-being and morale, she said.

“Officers are working many more hours than they normally would,” Stewart said. “And whatever the profession, it will put a strain not only on that person, but also on their family.”

Officer welfare

Stewart has launched an investigation within the department to help determine the issues officers are facing. This internal study will not be shared with the public, she said. She plans to sit down with her command staff to analyze the survey responses.

The survey asks officers questions about what changes and improvements they would like to see and solicits suggestions on how she can be the best police chief for them.

Stewart said she hopes the survey will help her identify how to improve the morale and welfare of officers, so they in turn can be better public servants for Evanston.

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