Officer Bennie Evans works with homeless, mental health in community policing

Officer Bennie Evans works with homeless, mental health in community policing

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

When Officer Bennie Evans of the Alexandria Police Department interacts with the city’s homeless population while on patrol, he said he tries to help them, knowing that one day they could help him in his police work.

Since 2005, Evans has juggled his work responding to emergency calls with community policing, getting to know residents and building relationships. He now serves as the department’s homeless outreach liaison, and helps distribute donated clothes and link those on the streets to other services.

He said those interactions can be helpful in building a rapport with those in the community who otherwise might
not trust police officers.

“You get something out of it,” Evans said. “You give somebody a pair of socks, and they remember you for the rest of the week and you can stop and have a conversation with them, whereas other cops might not be able to have that

That work combined with his role as an instructor in the department’s crisis intervention team led to Evans being named one of just 12 recipients nationally of the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the honorees earlier this month.

Evans said his efforts with the homeless began at the urging of a senior colleague, who told him they could potentially help solve cases given their living situations.

“I had an older detective, Detective [David] Hoffmaster, he’s retired now but he would always tell me about these guys that would help him with cases,” Evans said. “He’d always tell me, ‘You know, when everybody else is asleep, they’re out and about. They sleep on the street; they can just about tell you every- thing that’s going on. They’re the eyes that everybody else is looking through.’”

Now, Evans works alongside City Councilor Willie Bailey, Michael Johnson of the city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities and others to pro- vide clothes, haircuts and other activities for the home- less, as well as for under-privileged students at various points during the school year.

Evans is also a key component in the crisis intervention team, developed by the police department in partnership with the city’s department of community and human services. Officers are trained to recognize psychiatric disorders and other mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as intervene in suicide situations.

A lead instructor in the CIT, Evans said the program has brought positive results for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Police spokeswoman Crystal Nosal added that for its size, the APD has among the most officers trained in crisis intervention in the country.

“The program itself put us in the position where we started communicating better with city entities, and things started running a little smoother for us too,” Evans said. “I was doing the homeless stuff, and now we’ve incorporated the homeless stuff into our CIT program, and our program has really blossomed.”

Evans said it has brought a far greater understanding of mental health and how to deal with it, especially for first responders.

“Some people don’t need to go to jail, because there might be some mental illness that causes a situation you’re at,” he said. “The sheriff’s office is involved, the police department is involved, and we realized this person doesn’t need to be in jail, this person needs to be in a mental facility getting treatment. All the entities working together, it’s starting to look a little better around the city, I think.”

Despite the personal recognition, Evans said it would be impossible to do the work he does without support from numerous people and groups. He credited Bailey and Johnson among others for their work, and said his fellow patrol officers pick up the slack in responding to calls to allow him to go out in the community.

“I can never accept an award without the support of my team that I work with,” Evans said. “I always say, I’m the face of the dollar, but they don’t see the 99- plus people behind me that are doing a lot of the work. Nobody sees the big funnel behind me, they only see the peak.”

After nearly 20 years with the department, Evans said he plans to continue to use his position as a police officer to engage with the community. The West End resident said he is thankful to be afforded the opportunity to do so, since it may not exist in other professions.

“Whereas, say for instance I was a baker or something. It would be a little difficult for me to get into those neighborhoods as a baker versus as a cop,” Evans said. “The job itself puts you in those neighborhoods, puts you in front of the people that see the things.

“The thing about police work that a lot of folks don’t see is we never see the positives. We’re normally responding because something bad happened. It gives us an opportunity to see the people who are in need and able to service them outside of what their acute issue is right there.”