City Council voted 5-3 on Jan. 27 to apply for a grant that would pay for an array of security cameras along Dodge Avenue from Howard Street to Simpson Street and along Church Street from McCormick Boulevard to Ridge Avenue. The vote came despite vocal, emotional and at times angry community protest.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl spearheaded the initiative from the outset. Before introducing the concept to City Council last month, she conducted two community meetings and attended two ward meetings on the topic.
The majority of those who attended the community meetings voiced strong objections to the proposal. The Mayor has said that she has held other, private, meetings at which she found support for her proposal.
Police Chief Richard Eddington said at the community meetings that the cameras would not have facial-recognition software, nor would they be continually monitored. They would be used both to dispatch police and other necessary emergency vehicles to a spot where a crime is occurring or has recently occurred, and to help solve crimes after they have been committed. He also has said that the police department does not have the personnel to regularly monitor security cameras, and that cameras are more useful in solving crimes after the fact.
Yet, said Mayor Tisdahl, “There is a hunger in this community for a solution, and there is a problem.”
Her proposed solution would come via a grant from the Cook County Department of Homeland Security. That department distributes U.S. Department of Justice monies for “appropriate” crime-prevention programs.
The Mayor said, in a memo to Council, that she and City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz met with Cook County officials and were told that the Mayor’s summer youth employment program qualifies.
A resolution authorizing the City to seek a $100,000 grant for the summer youth employment program passed unanimously and without controversy.
The camera proposal qualifies as well, the Mayor said.
Each of the 17 citizens who spoke about the camera issue spoke against it. Many live around the Dodge Avenue corridor, and most spoke of civil rights, public perception of security cameras, and a lack of need, given falling crime statistics.
John Bushnell said that his research showed that cameras do not deter crime. The fact that the funds for the project come from “‘Homeland Security’ is positively ominous,” he added.
Cecil Curtwright said there is a distinction between perception and reality, and that in reality the area is safe. He added that he is “concerned about the message [that] more surveillance leads to safety.”
Others spoke of the “illusion of security” that cameras provide, particularly when they are not monitored. Several speakers said that the money requested, $200,000, should be put to other uses, like the summer youth employment programming. “It is a justice grant,” said Dickelle Fonda. “Not just criminal justice, but social and economic justice.”
Michael Montenegro said that the push for cameras came from fear for the safety of high school students. “Decisions we make out of fear are almost always bad decisions.”
After citizen comment, the Mayor did not back down from her support of the proposal. She said she had spoken to “a young woman who is afraid because she has been shown guns on the way to and from school.”
Alderman Delores Holmes, whose 5th Ward includes much of Church Street and the portion of Dodge north of Church, said, “I want to change the conversation a bit. There is a whole different intent in trying to create a safe passage for kids.” Crime in the area is not the point, she said. “Safe passage is the goal here, [and that’s] a whole different deal. That’s the way I look at it; that’s the way I have always looked at it. … We need to step back and hear what the kids are saying to us.”
The high school brought this request to us, Ald. Holmes said, because their students said they would feel safer if cameras lined at least some walking routes.
Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of Evanston Township High School told the RoundTable that ETHS officials “met with City officials [in 2012] about three weeks after the murder of Dajae Coleman, and one of the suggestions we made to curb violence was to have more lights and install cameras to try to provide our students with more safe passage when they leave the high school campus, especially after dark. Teenagers should not live in fear of being shot and killed within blocks of their own high school.”
Dr. Witherspoon added, “I have not had any discussions with anyone at the City in recent months about their current plans.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked why Dodge Avenue was the choice. South of Oakton, Dodge is very safe, she said, calling cameras on that stretch a “waste of money.”
Ald. Holmes pointed out that cameras are going up shortly at the Levy Center, a move supported by Ald. Rainey and along the very portion of the route to which she referred.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward includes the stretch of Dodge Avenue between Church and Oakton streets, and most of the residents who spoke at citizen comment, said, “I have shared with residents and more importantly listened to residents. I do not have support to place cameras south of Dempster.”
Dodge Avenue was selected, said Mayor Tisdahl, in order to give students a choice. They can choose the camera route if it is safer in their mind, she said. They are always free to choose a different path when walking to school.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said, “Safe passage is the focus and we need to stick with that.”
There was no clear consensus among aldermen as to how to proceed. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “This particular solution goes beyond the bounds of the problem. We need to try and be more focused on results-oriented tools and solutions.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said that, based on the comments of Alds. Rainey and Braithwaite, the proposal should be limited to Dodge Avenue north of Dempster to Church Street.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, made a motion that Council authorize the City to pursue a $200,000 grant for the purpose of installing cameras along Church and Dodge. Confusion ensued regarding borders and the placement of cameras. Ald. Rainey wanted input as to placement, and continued to insist there is no need for cameras on Dodge south of Oakton.
Discussion as to possible amendment to the proposal, or voting now, but establishing camera placement later, flared up but was tamped down. Mayor Tisdahl said the City could present any proposal they wanted to Cook County, but that a detailed proposal stating where cameras were to be placed had a far greater chance of success than a simple request for $200,000 to buy cameras for locations to be determined later.
Once the proposal is submitted, the City must stick with the camera placement outlined in the proposal, she said. “Once we say what we’re going to do, we’re going to have to do what we say we’re going to do,” she said.
With Ald. Grover’s motion pending, unamended, Ald. Braithwaite asked if Council could vote on it, then follow up with another proposal if the motion failed.
“We’re not going to put them all in the Fifth Ward,” said Ald. Holmes. Cameras should cover “all kids, all over the City. That’s where I’m coming from.”
Mayor Tisdahl initially called for a voice vote, but the results were unclear and a roll-call vote followed. The measure passed by a 5-3 vote, with Alds. Fiske, Braithwaite and Wilson voting no. Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, was absent because of travel difficulties in Colorado.
Several members of the public erupted at the vote. Jevoid Simmons shouted, “I am astounded!” Doria Johnson called for civil disobedience. Others shouted and grumbled as they left Council chambers, signaling the possibility that this matter has not yet reached its conclusion.
Ald. Rainey added to that feeling at Call of the Wards, the last public portion of every City Council meeting. “I am considering moving to reconsider [the camera] matter at the next Council meeting,” she said. “I did not realize it was going to be so controversial. There’s no one in the world that does not agree with safe passage [for students].”
Should Ald. Rainey follow through and change her vote, the outcome of the resolution would in all probability hinge on the vote of the absent Ald. Burrus, who has long been a supporter of school safety initiatives ranging from lower speed limits to a “safe school zone.”