Agenda item A18 on the Sept. 9 City Council agenda was a resolution to hire two armed security guards for the Morton Civic Center. One guard would stand at the most used entrance – the one off the parking lot – and the other would patrol the halls.
A few days before the meeting, the RoundTable posted an editorial opposing the move until City officials provided more information. We wanted to be convinced this was not a matter of veiled threats against vociferous and sometimes unruly residents speaking their minds or, perhaps worse, fear-mongering as a means to deter residents from coming to the Civic Center for any reason.
We further said that if there are credible threats to employees of or visitors to the Civic Center, the better course is to have police officers rather than armed security guards in the building.
Since then, we have learned a few things. At the Sept. 9 meeting, Police Chief Demitrous Cook said that over a three-year period, police received 172 calls for service at the Civic Center. Among the reasons for the calls, he said, were burglaries to vehicles in the lot, miscellaneous public service and nuisance complaints and “disturbances.”
Retired Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington said problems at the Civic Center during his tenure, which ended in December of last year, were much more serious than disgruntled residents at a Council meeting. He also said private security guards provide “security theater” rather than solid safety.
Aldermen on Sept. 9 said they wished to learn the particulars of the genesis of the proposal to place security guards in the Civic Center and more about the incidents and disturbances. With a nod from the Corporation Counsel that they could do this in executive session, they agreed to do so but did not set a date. The section of the Illinois Open Meetings Act they cited is 5 ILCS 120/2 (c)(8), which allows in closed session the discussion of “Security procedures, school building safety and security, and the use of personnel and equipment to respond to an actual, a threatened, or a reasonably potential danger to the safety of employees, students, staff, the public, or public property.”
Under the Open Meetings Act, exemptions are to be strictly construed so that the public’s right to know is ensured. The intent of that exemption appears to enable a public body to discuss in private the security measures themselves and the method of response, not the incidents they contend create a danger.
Taking care to protect the privacy of people involved in these incidents, we think Council should discuss in public the nature of the incidents, as they do not appear to be covered by this exemption to the Open Meetings Act.
The public has a right to know what is going on at the Civic Center that City official say creates a danger to staff or visitors or both.
It may be that calls to the Police Department – which, by Chief Cook’s estimate seem to be about one per week over the course of three years – is the best way to handle disturbances at the Civic Center. Or it may be that stepped-up security is a wise precaution.
Either way, the residents of Evanston, who are also the taxpayers who will foot the bill for this, are entitled to a thorough analysis of safety at the Civic Center.
The City has proposed hiring two armed security guards from Phoenix Security in Skokie. The company is owned and operated by a retired Evanston Police Officer, and many Phoenix employees are former police officers.
If City officials seriously believe that things are at a point that we need to have hired guns in the Civic Center, they should add police officers, not security guards. Police officers are trained to assess situations quickly and react responsibly. They have ongoing training in how to handle emerging crises and how to de-escalate incendiary situations. Moreover, their body-worn cameras will record all incidents, which could help in ascertaining blame and avoiding lawsuits.
Hiring two additional police officers would put the City back significantly more than would hiring two Phoenix Security guards, and the City would also be adding to its pension debt. Allocating two police officers to Civic Center duty from their current assignments would also likely come at a cost.
Council members must talk with their constituents about what services might be cut or what fees and taxes increased in order to have heightened security at the Civic Center.
If safety is indeed the issue, we favor using Evanston Police officers.
In the meantime, here are some inexpensive suggestions. There are six entrances and four expansive floors in the Morton Civic Center. One easy measure would be to close some of those entrances and lock the doors of offices that are currently vacant.
Perhaps a camera system would provide better monitoring than one guard wandering through the building.
We understand that, in this age of random spree killings, safety is of paramount concern. Visitors to and employees at the Morton Civic Center should both feel safe and be safe.