The lettering DHSEM on the Cook County vehicle at the Custer Street Fair aroused concerns that it was a federal vehicle.                                                RoundTable photo

The outsized Department of Homeland Security vehicle loomed large at the south end of the Custer Street Festival of the Arts on June 15. While it was not the vehicle’s first visit to Evanston, this unified command post (UCP) was new to the festival and to many of those who attended the fair.

It might be the vehicle is poorly named, because the large white letters DHSEM indicate the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, giving no clue that this was a Cook County vehicle rather than a federal one.

Fire Chief Brian Scott said he approved the decision by Division Chief of Emergency Management Kim Kull to use the vehicle both at the Custer Fair over Father’s Day weekend and last month at Northwestern University’s music festival Dillo Day. He said the department had notified Tammy Szoztek, organizer of the Custer Street Fair, that there would be a Cook County command vehicle at the fair. He added the vehicle was not there in response to a threat.

Evanston Fire Department personnel staffed the vehicle and even invited fair-goers in for a tour. “The mobile unified command center is an $830,000 asset with six on-board computer work stations and state-of-the art mobile communications suite that helps ensure inter-operability.

 “It also includes thermal-imaging,  weather-monitoring and incident-management tools to assist fire and police officers,” Chief Scott told the RoundTable.  

 “At large special events, we always take proactive measures of varying degrees in consideration of weather (e.g., high winds, lightning, etc.) and potential man-made threats (e.g., car driving into crowd, active shooter, etc.) along with general safety and security for all residents and visitors.

 “If anything should go wrong, having a command center already in place is extremely helpful for the management of the emergency response by both police and fire.

 “The UCP can also be used proactively to monitor the weather and event activities such as EMS needs at that event location. The vehicle is in no way affiliated with ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is not used in any way as part of immigration enforcement,” Chief Scott said.

Nonetheless, many feared the vehicle was connected to ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement department

As a welcoming community, Evanston has pledged that, except where criminal activity is involved, its government and public safety officials will not question the status of anyone seeking services.

Several people took to social media, using the Evanston Fire Department’s Facebook page to decry the presence of the vehicle as a threat to undocumented residents.

Gregg R. Baker wrote, “I will avoid the Custer Street Fair this year. Whoever thought this vehicle was an appropriate vehicle to showcase at the fair should resign.”

Ms. Szoztek responded, “That would be me. I’m not resigning; I will take whatever means necessary to keep people who come to my fair safe. I make no apologies for this. You don’t see me complaining about all this cyber-bullying you all are doing.”

Jodi Glenn Fox wrote, “It looks terrifying.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty wrote, “Public safety and being a welcoming City are not mutually exclusive. The City’s priority is keeping people safe at the Custer Street Fair, not monitoring people for ICE. I appreciate Cook County providing this Command Center.”

Almost immediately Alejandra Ibanez, created an online petition denouncing the presence of the vehicle and demanding, among other things, that DHS vehicles not be allowed in the City (see sidebar).  Ms. Ibanez served on the City’s committee that crafted the welcoming ordinance; she currently is a member of the City’s Equity and Empowerment Commission.

Mayor Hagerty said in an email to local media the vehicle has been used in Evanston and is not part of ICE.

He also said, “Nonetheless, we understand the size, location, and presence of this vehicle at Custer Street alarmed some people, particularly given the national focus on immigration.

“To address these concerns, show more sensitivity towards our immigrant neighbors, and ensure strong economic activity for our vendors and businesses, in the future when we have it, we will place it nearby in a less public and prominent location. In addition, we will seek to have the vehicle visit Evanston at some point during a non-event and open it up to the public to visit and learn more about how it helps our emergency responders, should anything ever go wrong.”

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin told the RoundTable, the vehicle belongs to Cook County but the Evanston Fire Department used it June 15 and 16. The name, Department of Homeland Security, he said was adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks and the federal government created its Department of Homeland Security.

“The agency Cook County Public Safety was renamed Homeland Security – not the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “It is not a federal asset and does not have any communication with ICE. …

“Using this vehicle was never intended to scare recent arrivals and people who are wary of government.”

The UCPs have been used hundreds of times, when there is large-crowd events, Mr. Suffredin said, including Northwestern University football games. “This is the first time we’ve had a reaction to it.” The UCP has valuable equipment for communications and monitoring weather – “it’s not spyware.” Of the confusion with ICE, he said, “I am not sure how it got totally distorted.

“When people get scared, it’s a legitimate emotion. I’m sorry that this truck caused discomfort. … It’s sad that a vehicle made to help first responders caused so much unease.”

Mr. Suffredin submitted a proposal to the County Board to be considered at its June 27 meeting to change the name of the Cook County Department of Homeland Security to the Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Public Safety.

On June 16, the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management vehicle was relocated  a few blocks away from the fair.

Chief Scott said, “Given our most recent experience at the 2019 Custer Street Fair, we will make sure to consider and be sensitive to the concerns raised by the immigrant community and their supporters.

“Future steps could include pre-education opportunities for the entire Evanston community to see and visit the UCP to learn more about the vehicle, as well as strategically placing the vehicle at future events in a less prominent location while still being able to utilize the UCP’s full capability.”

Alejandra Ibanez reported that by June 21 more than 400 residents had signed her petition denouncing the presence of the vehicle, which they believed was part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She serves on the City’s Equity and Empowerment Commission and was a member of the City’s Welcoming City Committee that crafted the City’s Welcoming City Ordinance.

The petition states in part, “We, the undersigned members of the Evanston Community, are committed to Evanston being a safe community for all residents. We embrace that Evanston is a Welcoming City and will work to maintain this ideal.

“It is our position that the presence of the Department of Homeland Security vehicle at the Custer Street Fair … brought fear and distrust into our community and are demanding all Evanston officials commit to not using this vehicle at community events in the future. … This threat was underscored on June 18, 2019 when DHS officials reported that ICE is preparing for mass arrests of immigrants. Neither the Department nor any of its branches are neutral. It is absolutely unreasonable to ask documented or undocumented immigrant families to believe that DHS is not a threat to their families, in whatever form.” 

The petition calls on Mayor Steve Hagerty, City Council, Fire Chief Brian Scott, and Fire Department Division Chief of Emergency Management Kim Kull to commit, among other things, to not using DHS vehicles or staff here and “immediately implement an Equity Impact Assessment tool to assure that the impact of future decisions does not harm historically marginalized Evanstonians.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...