Thirty years after Orwell's prophesied year,1984, debating the pros and cons of a surveillance state has become America’s favorite pastime, with new revelations about the extensive reach of the National Security Agency surfacing on a continual basis. But the debate is no longer limited to the national government – it's come to Evanston.
At the Evanston City Council meeting on Monday night, surveillance and technology took center stage — officials reported a crime drop in 2013 that could be due to technological advancements, and the council voted to install additional security cameras along Dodge and Church Streets, all in the face of a crowd of public commenters opposed to the implications of an increase in surveillance.
Crime rates in Evanston dropped by nine percent in 2013, probably due to the increasing pervasiveness of technology, according to Commander Jay Parrott of the Evanston Police Department, who presented to the council on Monday night.
“People are more accountable,” said Parrott. “The use of smart phones, taking pictures and video, public video in public places, video in stores and private locations, these all help us reduce crime because there’s so much more accountability.”
The crime drop is the most significant crime reduction since 2010, when crime dropped over twenty percent. In 2011 and 2012, crime rates remained fairly flat, Parrott said.
The City Council also voted, following almost an hour of contentious public commentary, to apply for a grant to install cameras along Dodge and Church Streets to provide a safe passage for students traveling to and from Evanston Township High School.
“People have come up to me at the grocery store and at the health club and have told me, ‘You’re right about the cameras,’” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who has been campaigning for the cameras for weeks. Tisdahl said she spoke to many students who feel unsafe around the high school, referencing a girl who now drives two blocks to school because she has been shown a gun multiple times on her way to school.
The grant will ask for $200,000 to install as many cameras as possible down Dodge St from Simpson to Howard and along Church from Ridge to McCormick, after about 25 percent of high school students reported on a recent survey that they feel unsafe in the area around their school.
“There is a hunger in this community for a solution to this problem,” said Tisdahl.
However, many members of the community who spoke at the council meeting raised questions about the effectiveness of cameras in fighting crime and promoting a feeling of security. The citizens who commented spoke vehemently against the cameras, calling for additional discussion and information before a vote, and asking for an increase in police on the ground rather than cameras in the sky.
“In our community we can surely find other ways to look after our citizens and have a safer community without stepping on the civil liberties of all,” said Monica Sageman, an Evanston resident. “Do video cameras really make us more secure? Or do they just offer the illusion of security?”
Alderwoman Ann Rainey (8th Ward) said that she has seen the installation of cameras drastically lower the crime rates in her ward.
“Every time we put a camera up in my ward,” Rainey said, “someone on the next block wants a camera.”
When the council voted 5 to 3 to apply for the grant to install the cameras, the crowd burst in shouts of dissent.
“I am astounded. I can’t believe that this happened,” said Doria Johnson, who has spent most of her life in Evanston. “This will change the trajectory of Evanston forever.”