Urbana says “no” to license plate readers, but Champaign says “yes” in effort to reduce gun violence

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A portion of the proposed automatic license plate readers in Champaign, bordered by light blue lines. Screenshot from Champaign study session document.

Although Champaign voted in favor of implementing automated license plate readers (ALPRs) for $240,500 last month, Urbana rejected its $54,000 idea about a month earlier.

The technology has been increasingly implemented in neighboring areas in the past few years. After Champaign approved the deal with Flock Safety in December, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin gave a statement to the News-Gazette in which she said she hopes the city can reconsider the technology and “have the same protection as our neighboring communities.”

The readers are a computer-controlled camera system that quickly captures images of every license plate that passes by. Police departments can compare images of the plate numbers to cars driven by people suspected of being involved in criminal activity

The decisions mark a key difference between the two cities’ approaches to curbing gun violence. Some Urbana City Council members against the idea said the technology lacked evidence-based results and preferred to use proposed funds to address root causes of violence in the community. In Champaign, the efficacy of the technology is still debated, but Champaign police said it would provide two system evaluations per year that would include statements on efficacy and launch a transparency portal with public data regarding the readers.

Before either city’s decision, citizens called for opportunities to give public feedback outside of regular public comment in meetings before votes were cast.

Urbana hosted two town halls in partnership with the Champaign County NAACP to inform the public on what the technology entails and what kinds of policies are associated. Champaign did not specifically seek community input, according to an October study session document. At the session, the police department, which is understaffed by dozens, proposed the use of technology such as ALPRs and gunshot detection to address increasing gun violence.

Local media series on gun violence also prompted further discussion amongst the community and city leaders.

There’s been a shocking increase in shooting incidents in Urbana during the past few years, with 2021 seeing 115 shootings compared to 53 in 2020. Predominantly black neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by the violence. People are getting shot in the streets, in their cars and even in their homes. 

Champaign’s 45 readers will be placed in areas most impacted by gun violence, encapsulating wide areas in west and north parts of the city. Urbana initially planned to place the readers throughout the city and in neighborhoods that experience the most crimes. They can be mounted on stationary objects like road signs and streetlights, as well as on police squad cars. 

Grace Wilken, representing Ward 6 on the Urbana City Council, said the council received several inquiries from concerned residents about the technology when it was first being discussed, and said the majority of the Council weren’t ready to approve anything without some kind of community input.

According to the City of Urbana, ALPRs can:

  • Provide important information that victims and eyewitnesses are unable or afraid to, such as the driver’s geographic location, and the date and time. 
  • Remove human biases or errors when identifying vehicles.
  • Improve county-wide collaboration across jurisdictions when investigating shootings and other crimes.

During the Urbana City Council Zoom meeting on September 20, Marlin said the gun violence emergency needs to be addressed immediately with short-term solutions, and adding ALPRs is one step towards restoring the peace throughout the neighborhoods. 

“Shots have been fired in parking lots, endangering innocent people and traumatizing entire neighborhoods,” Mayor Marlin said. “I recognize and celebrate the many individuals and organizations who have joined with the cities to address the community violence in many different ways, and we all know the long-term solution we have to focus on are the root causes, and there are many people who are working on that already.”

Residents of the Southeast Urbana Neighborhood Association (SUNA) and the Dr. Ellis Subdivision addressed the city council with a petition in support of the installation of ALPRs. However, there have been several posts by concerned residents on the Historic East Urbana Facebook group page regarding the cost of the cameras and privacy issues. 

Judi Kutzko, an 82-year-old University of Illinois alumna and Historic East Urbana resident since 1956, said that if the ALPRs end up getting approved, she hopes the Urbana City Council members will make every effort to inform residents of what they expect this will accomplish and how sensitive data will be handled. 

“I consider myself a middle-of-the-road political independent and my feeling is that ALPRs are just another invasion of privacy,” Kutzko said in an email. “Citizens are already spied on by numerous sources and we don’t need another layer. If this action should come to pass, what areas of the city would be the likely ‘recipients’ of this?” 

The ALPR provider the City of Urbana intended to use is called Flock Safety. At the September 20 council meeting, Flock Safety ALPR salesman Dan Murdock said the neighboring communities of Rantoul and Decatur have “successfully” been using Flock since June. He only gave one example of how the cameras can help solve crimes, mentioning an incident that occured in Rantoul a few months ago. 

Urbana Chief of Police Bryant Seraphin said at the meeting that Flock is relatively cost-effective in comparison to other camera systems because it’s an annual commitment instead of an outright purchase. This means that if the City of Urbana used the cameras for a couple of years but ended up not achieving the desired results, they wouldn’t be tied down to Flock’s system.

“It’s more like renting an apartment as opposed to buying a house,” Seraphin said. 

According to Flock Safety, the cost of each camera is $2,500 per year, along with a one-time installation fee of $250 and a potential removal fee of $250. 

Data will be stored with Flock and that nothing will be transferred or sold to third parties. Data will be uploaded to a secure Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) compliant cloud server for 30 days. Within that window, a city can view the captured images and save the ones that are relevant to the investigation. Once the 30 days have passed, the unsaved images will be deleted forever. 

Tammy Masters, a resident of Ward 6 and coordinator for the Country Squire Addition Neighborhood Watch Program, covering southeast Urbana just east of Florida Avenue and Philo Road, said she supports the proposal for ALPRs and thinks they will be a very useful tool for the police to identify possible shooters. 

“With the increased rate of gunshots, I don’t think ALPRs would be a waste of money at all,” Masters said. “We’re living in a constant state of fear right now because of this increase in crime.”

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  1. Orwell

    They want 1984. Its not about safety.