City Council voted 7-2 Monday night, April 26, to approve the design and implementation of a surveillance camera system throughout Evanston. Federal funding secured from the U.S. Department of Justice Technology Program with the help of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky will cover the entire cost of the system, which promises to form an infrastructure of wireless camera-access points that can be built upon creating a shifting and growing network of surveillance cameras throughout Evanston.
The project will create infrastructure in three separate areas in the City. The main grant will provide nearly $250,000 for cameras and infrastructure in downtown Evanston. The remainder of the grant is for cameras and networks in the South and West sides of Evanston.
The program was not without its detractors, chief among them Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward. “We’re moving expeditiously toward complete surveillance in the City of Evanston,” he said. The plans call for the placement of cameras in areas that have not shown a need, a history of criminal activity, or any level of proof that they will prove useful, he added. He called reliance on cameras a “total abdication” of the City’s responsibility to try and change behavior by “interacting with each other.”
He was joined by Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who focused on the perception that downtown is not safe because of the perceived need for so many security cameras. “My view is that downtown is relatively quiet,” she said, and “a very safe place.” She operates a retail business downtown, often walking through the City late at night, and always feels safe, she said.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8thWard, initially expressed skepticism. “I think I probably was the major supporter of cameras years ago, but since then I have become disillusioned by our use of them,” she said, referencing a tire slashing incident that took place directly under a security camera but was not recorded. Her expression of skepticism was limited to just the one comment, however, as the remainder of the night she argued strongly in favor of adding the cameras.
Police Chief Richard Eddington said that the precise location and number of the cameras had yet to be determined and could only be nailed down after the design phase had been completed. The locations shown in the diagram included in the Council packet are very preliminary, he indicated, adding that aldermen would be consulted and asked for input before final site selection would be made.
The cameras will not be monitored, Chief Eddington said in response to a question from Ald. Fiske. Rather, cameras will be called into play after a 911 call comes in or after a crime has been committed. The cameras are not monitoring devices, he said, but tools of law enforcement. If the police department gets a call reporting a disturbance, the cameras can be used to inform the department how extensive and inform a decision regarding how many cars to send. He called the cameras “a force multiplier.”
During citizen comment, Richard Katz asked, “What is the message that [the cameras’] presence sends to Evanstonians?” He also wondered about the perception of Evanston in neighboring communities. He said that data indicated that cameras were not at all efficient or effective in reducing crime, and only marginally effective in helping to prosecute crime.
Council was not convinced by Ald. Jean-Baptiste, Ald. Fiske or Dr. Katz. Beginning with Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, they began to line up behind the cameras. “I really don’t think adopting this reflects an unsafe” environment, but rather that “we care about public safety,” Ald. Wilson said.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, pointed to the prevalence of cameras in London where she had recently traveled. “I don’t remember ever even noticing them,” she said, adding, “I never felt as though I was being watched. I don’t think anyone in London feels less safe because of the cameras.”
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, praised the cameras as a way to help catch criminals. “Victims of crime will want every piece of technology to catch the perpetrators,” she said.
Downtown, and Ald. Fiske’s resistance to “blanketing” what she believes to be a safe area with cameras, drew a chilly response from Ald. Rainey. “There’s something different about downtown in that everyone goes downtown,” she said. “I don’t thing it’s the Nirvana you’re making it out to be.” Ald. Burrus jumped in, refuting the notion “that we’re Mayberry downtown” with references to purse snatchings and bike thefts.
When it came time to vote, only Alds. Jean-Baptiste and Fiske voted no. The cameras are coming, Evanston. The number and placement are to be determined, but they are definitely coming.