The Evanston Police Department in Illinois has made history by swearing in its first-ever female police chief.
Chief Schenita Stewart became the department’s first permanent female police chief in its history after a period of two interim police chiefs and a yearlong referral-only search conducted by the city.
Stewart, formerly the deputy chief at East Dundee Police Department, grew up in Evanston with her twin Schonella, who currently works as a commander at the neighboring Oak Park Police Department.
Stewart, who credited her grandfather for inspiring her to become a police officer, said her main goal as department leader is to give back to the community that raised her and inspire others like her to join law enforcement.
“I got to show that there are female minorities in this profession that have great leadership skills, great resumes,” Stewart said. “My background, my resume, my experience is why I’m in this position. And I’m hoping in the future, other city managers give qualified candidates the same fair opportunity to be the chiefs of police and deputy chiefs nationally.”
The chief’s priorities will be to repair community relations, rebuild staffing and support officer health and wellness.
According to the EPD Transparency Hub, just 9% of officers at the department live in the city.
Stewart blamed the housing market and the lack of affordability for this, but said she doesn’t think it affects officers’ community engagement work.
She cited the department’s volunteer work, especially with youth, as making up for the lack of officers living in the community they serve.
“I’m proud of the engagement that our police officers do outside of their day-to-day responsibilities here,” Stewart said.
The Chief told the Evanston RoundTable that her goal is to continue to support community relations between residents and police.
“We have to go out there in the field and take the time to build back those relationships,” Stewart said. “It’s my job as the chief to try to put our staff in a position to have opportunities to build on those relationships.”
Stewart also said she plans to host meet-and-greets with the community, which she is calling “Coffee with the Chief.” In addition, the chief hopes to update family members of crime victims about the status of their cases by calling them personally.
Stewart also hopes to remedy staffing shortages. Currently, the department has 26 vacancies among sworn personnel.
Before Stewart was sworn in, her predecessor reassigned officers from the Community Policing Unit to patrols to deal with the shortage.
“I support that decision, because the community wants people to answer those 911 calls, and we need the bodies to answer those calls,” Stewart said.
The chief said she is working to make the hiring process more efficient while also boosting morale within the department to retain officers.
“Officers are working a lot more hours than they normally would,” Stewart said. “And no matter what the profession, that’s going to put a strain on not only that individual but the individual’s family.”
To keep officers in good spirits, Stewart plans to address their problems.
She said she intends to launch a survey to learn about the specific problems facing officers in order to identify solutions.