They call him Officer Bennie.
For more than 20 years, Officer Bennie Evans has patrolled the streets of Alexandria, Virginia, first as a sheriff’s deputy and now as an Alexandria police officer.
This month Evans became the first recipient of the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Services in Community Policing.
Walking outside the Davis Place homeless shelter where Evans begins many of his days, he said the award really should go to a group of officers.
“I’m just the face of this. There are 99 other guys standing behind me, from the Department to the City Council," he said.
There’s a reason Evans is the face of community policing in Alexandria. His boss said much of the work Evans does in the community extends beyond his shift as an officer.
“He likes to fly under the radar,” Acting Police Chief David Huchler said. "A lot of the work he does, he does on his own time, as well as the work he does serving the community as a police officer.”
That work started eight years ago, when Evans decided to shift the focus of his street patrols to homeless residents.
“Myself and a couple of other officers got out and started to identify people to build that relationship.”
Those relationships with homeless residents led Evans to learn more about mental illness and how to better engage those he encounters who are coping with mental health issues.
“Some of these folks don’t belong in jail. If they’re mentally ill, they definitely don’t belong in jail," he said.
The realization that mentally ill people were needlessly being put in jail rather than being placed in a program that could help them led Evans to become trained in crisis intervention -- specialized training for first responders so they are better able to defuse situations involving mentally ill people.
Evans now trains other officers and first responders around the county.
More than 400 officers in Alexandria have received crisis intervention training since 2009. Seventy percent of the department is trained now.
“He is teaching the next generation of police officers what it means to serve the community and how to engage the community.” Huchler said.
Evans’ life changed forever three years ago, and his work with the mentally ill took on new meaning. In the span of four months, he lost his father and his son. At 15 years old, Cameron Kristopher Evans took his own life.
“After my son's suicide, it took this whole homeless and mental illness thing to another level for me. I was like this is it.” Evans said.
Sharon Adams works at the Davis Place Shelter. She said homeless residents felt Evans’ loss.
“A lot of the homeless people went to the memorial service. They went to the funeral and they showed up to support Officer Bennie. It melted my heart. We care about this guy and he cares about us," she said.
After Evans' son’s death, he learned something about his son from some of the homeless residents -- something that he never knew.
Cameron had been following in his father’s footsteps by also helping homeless people. Evans said that after his son's death, people told him how Cameron had helped them by giving them his own socks and shoes.
“He was a big 15-year-old baby,” Evans said proudly. “Daddy’s baby. Just to know he was doing the work and didn’t look for any reward, that’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to give back to the community.”
As the Attorney General placed the medal around Evans' neck, he said he thought of his father and his son and felt them by his side sharing in his honor.
The award comes at a time when press coverage of police officers is often negative.
“This is just a great example of the great work police are doing, not just in Alexandria but across the country," Huchler said.
As for those he has chosen to focus his efforts on, Evans said it could be any one of us who become homeless. We as a society have to stop turning our backs on mental illness and the homeless, he said.
As he returns to his daily patrol, Evans gets a shout from a disheveled elderly man crossing the street. Evans waves with a big smile.
“They’re the forgotten souls," he said.