Toward the end of spring, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl announced plans for a city-wide Safe Summer Initiative designed primarily to keep Evanston’s youth safe from street violence. But nearly five months after the initiative was launched at the , it remains difficult to assess the program’s successes and failures.
Last year, Evanston experienced a dramatic spike in homicides -- eight in 2010 compared to only one in 2009 -- and .
In response, Tisdahl assembled a task force composed of city department representatives, faith community leaders, nonprofit heads and ETHS students to brainstorm new ideas that could be implemented quickly and cheaply to protect the city’s juveniles and young adults.
The resulting plan contained ideas running the gamut from hosting city-sponsored poetry slams to teaching teens de-escalation techniques for use in potentially-violent or threatening situations. The initiative’s two most popular and widely implemented programs were increasing the number of free youth activities at the city’s recreation centers and , which were handed out at various locations around Evanston.
The basic premise behind these and many other suggested methods seemed to be that if the city could provide Evanston youth with safe spaces to participate in activities, it might prevent at-risk youth from putting themselves in scenarios that could lead them to becoming either the victims or perpetrators of violent crimes.
But did the city accomplish its goal?
A simple answer to this question might derive from looking at Evanston’s crime statistics during the duration of the program to see whether this year’s summer months had fewer violent crimes and juvenile arrests than in past years.
Indeed, juvenile arrests dropped in the summer of 2011 (between June 11 and Sept. 5, the dates that Evanston beaches were open).
Whereas last summer saw 91 juveniles arrested for a total of 137 offenses, this summer only 73 juveniles were arrested for a total of 113 offenses, an 18 to 20 percent drop in both categories.
(Read full juvenile summer arrest, adult summer arrest and summer crime statistics in supplemental PDFs in this article's photo section)
Juvenile arrests for violent crimes generally also dropped, as fewer minors were arrested for aggravated assault, aggravated battery, simple battery and strong-arm robbery than in the summer of 2010.
However, a decrease in juvenile arrests does not necessarily denote a drop in juvenile crime. If a minor commits a crime and is not caught, the offense is recorded as an incidence of crime and not attributed to a juvenile offender since the victim cannot accurately identify the perpetrator’s age with certainty. Likewise, juvenile crimes could go unreported if teen victims failed to report them to police.
When looking at the number of reported incidents that occurred this summer, the total amount of crime in Evanston actually increased from 2010. Violent crime remained static, with some categories showing slight jumps and others small drops.
Additionally, even though the total number of homicides in Evanston is down so far this year -- three in 2011 compared to six at this point last year -- the summer of 2010 had only one homicide while the summer of 2011 had two.
Still, neither of this summer’s homicides involved juveniles. In one case at a 2nd Ward party and in the other case in the 500 block of Howard Street.
And Evanston Police Cmdr. Tom Guenther said that it can be difficult to predict where and when homicides might happen, because outside of gang intelligence and neighborhood enforcement, predictive analytics used to determine deployment strategies cannot easily account for homicides that occur between acquaintances.
Crime statistics might give clues as to whether police deployment strategies and city-run activities worked effectively to make the city safer for youth, but the other piece of the puzzle lies in answering how well the programs were received by the Evanston community.
This assessment has its own difficulties, though.
According to the City of Evanston, 244 free beach passes were handed out this summer: 85 at the Robert Crown Center, 105 at the Evanston Public Library Main Branch, 48 at the Chandler-Newberger Center and six at the Fleetwood Jourdain Center. The average age of a free beach pass recipient was a little more than 15-years-old.
But it is near impossible to determine whether these beach passes were going to the at-risk youth who might otherwise have put themselves in bad situations.
On one hand, over a third of the passes came from Robert Crown, the closest pickup location for much of the 2nd Ward, which has been the site of at least three of last year’s homicides and one this year.
In contrast, only 2.5 percent of free beach passes came from Fleetwood Jourdain, which serves Evanston’s 5th Ward, the site of one of 2010’s homicides and an area long plagued by drug sales and gang activity.
Identifying whether or not the Safe Summer programs served the at-risk youth for which they were intended is difficult seemingly because it is not easy to quantify whether a teen might make a bad decision.
But Betsy Jenkins, center manager at Fleetwood Jourdain, said that from what she observed, she thinks the summer’s programs were a success, attracting more youth than in past summers and keeping some of them out of trouble.
“It gave kids who are borderline, where if the hat drops the wrong way they’re going to go the other way, an opportunity to get in and see everything that is available to them, and see that a lot of things are done for free,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes you have to expose kids to other things in order for them to change. ... This summer, we caught on to some kids that usually get into trouble and we kept them occupied. And the ones that could be aimed for getting in trouble, we got them in a different direction.”
Jenkins said that roller-skating and the Fleetwood-sponsored open gym at Evanston Township High School were two of the most popular activities. She also noted that the initiative was particularly successful in that it managed to create new programs at little to no cost to the city.
Kevin Wallin, center manager at Chandler-Newberger, said that he also thought the new summer activities were well received by Evanston’s youth and, that like any recreation center program, earlier and increased publicity could help build momentum and bring about even better results next year.
But Wallin also said that while he did not keep strict records, he recalls that most programs attracted a crowd consisting of “early teens” and fewer older youth.
Tisdahl said that this was common for some programs, and that feedback from ETHS students revealed that some activities aimed toward high school students accidentally attracted a younger crowd.
One explanation for this mistake could be that the initiative failed to provide enough activities to attract high school students and young adults.
A worksheet released at the beginning of the summer, entitled ‘Safe Summer Opportunities/Resources for the Youth’ lists entrepreneurship, trade school fairs and workforce training as programs for young adults. It also lists internships, coffee house jam sessions and “greater variety of programs beyond sports” as ideas for activities for high school students.
However, none of these programs got off the ground, and while the Evanston’s Got Talent competition, drop-in programs at the library and programming related to music at the Custer Street Fair gave some variety to the ‘Safe Summer Initiative’, the majority of activities were related to sports.
Tisdahl said that many of the ideas submitted could not be implemented because the city simply did not have the necessary funding, but added that she is not done brainstorming new ways to help.
While Tisdahl said that since becoming mayor she has always had Evanston youth advising her in some form, she recently created the first permanent mayoral youth advisory group, which had its first official meeting last month.
The city has also extended some of the more successful summer programs, and now roller skating is a regular activity at both the Fleetwood Jourdain and Chandler-Newberger centers, with different times blocked off for various age groups.
Jenkins said that in the near future she would like to see a permanent “mentoring component” to help youth who might need adult guidance or counseling.
Tisdahl said that one of her next steps might be a proposal to change the city’s marijuana laws so that individuals caught carrying 10 grams or fewer would be issued a ticket or fine instead of being charged with a crime, potentially helping to keep some youths’ criminal records clean.
With these types of changes and ongoing assessment, Tisdahl said that she hopes she can turn her Safe Summer Initiative into something less seasonal and more perennial.
“I was focused on a safe summer vacation for them,” Tisdahl said, “but now I want them safe year round.”