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A controversial police-issued citation has caused the review of Evanston’s ordinance prohibiting public nudity, which heretofore has apparently taken the Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” approach. Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd ward, also urged a careful look at police action in the case and a renewed effort to combat a “perception of police bullying … that because [police officers] have authority, they exercise it.”

Current trends in dress may have contributed to a citation for public nudity issued in March 2009, but not reviewed by the Human Services Committee until its April 5 meeting.

The Human Services Committee reviews all citizen complaints about the police department after the complaints have been through police department review and Citizen Police Advisory Committee (CPAC) review. The complaint that captured Ald. Jean-Baptiste’s interest occurred in late March at about 6:45 am on Lake Street within steps of the police department.

According to the complaint form and documents prepared by the police department, a man walking to his Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting made provoking comments and gestures to three police officers on the sidewalk. The third officer took the bait and “confronted the complainant.” When the complainant “complied with the Accusing officer’s directive to puts his hands on the squad car, his concealing jacket hiked up and his genitals (facing the vehicle) and buttocks (facing the officer) were exposed.” Citations for public nudity and spitting on the sidewalk were issued. Both charges were dismissed when the Accusing officer failed to appear in court.

Ald. Jean-Baptiste expressed concern because, he said, “As the police approached this individual, the individual was not naked.” The perception that the police brought whatever charges could stick, “leveraging power” just because they have it, is something the police should think seriously about, he said. “I see this, stopped him, I don’t have anything else on him, oops!, his pants dropped, I’m charging him,” is how Ald. Jean-Baptiste summarized the case.

Chief of Police Richard Eddington said, “I realize how poorly it comes off when it appears that we exercised power just because we could.” But he ultimately defended department action in this case, saying that digital video recorded from cameras near the police parking lot backed the officer’s account.

Madeline Ducree, a member of CPAC, questioned the definition of nudity. “Nudity – what are you saying?” she asked. “What type of nudity are we talking about when you raise your hands [and your pants fall down]? The man had pants on.” She went on to question whether low-cut pants worn by young women that expose “crack” could lead to a nudity citation. Will officers “write up a ticket for that?” she asked.

Betty Sue Ester, a citizen attending the meeting, questioned police motives. “We know we’re in a community where kids wear pants too low. Some do not wear underwear. Police do know young people wear pants this way.” She wondered whether asking a youth to raise his hands and place them on the car, causing pants to fall down, constitutes “entrapment” if a nudity citation results.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, responded, “There is an expectation that when you put your clothes on, you can keep them on by themselves.” Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, agreed, adding, “If this man had had underwear on, it would have been a different case. He didn’t.” His proximity to the YMCA’s day care facility during the day added to her concern.

Responding to the questions regarding what constitutes nudity under the code, City Attorney Grant Farrar said that other municipalities went to great lengths and into great detail in defining nudity in their codes, but that Evanston’s code contained no definition. The Code, Section 9-5-11(A), states simply, “It shall be unlawful for any person to appear in a public place in a state of nudity or make any indecent exposure of his/her person.” Apparently, as with Justice Stewart’s infamous comment about pornography, in Evanston we do not have a definition for nudity, but we know it when we see it.

Ald. Jean-Baptiste referred the matter to the law department to “look into the state of the law” and the definition of nudity. Ald. Grover agreed that, given the fact that the nudity ordinance contains no definition of nudity, the City should “beef up the code.” A new, beefier definition should be appearing soon.