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Bloomington's civilian police board recommends adoption of plate-reading cameras — but there are caveats

Col. Jamal Simington during a community and media meet-and-greet.
Eric Stock
WGLT file
Bloomington Police Chief Jamal Simington reiterated the cameras could save officer manpower and money by allowing them to locate suspects or stolen vehicles faster.

Bloomington's Public Safety and Community Relations Board members voted Wednesday to recommend city council members approve a contract with security company Flock Safety for new license plate reading cameras — but there were caveats to that recommendation.

The PSCRB's review of a proposal that first surfaced publicly on a council consent agenda Jan. 10 was the last thing city council members had asked for before finally voting on the matter; the item was pulled from the agenda at that meeting after members voted 6-2 to delay approval until the PSCRB had a chance to analyze it.

Since then, BPD's proposal has been before the city's Technology Commission, questions answered on social media and, according to PSCRB member Surena Fish, an informal forum with a west side neighborhood association.

On Wednesday, Bloomington Police made its case for the cameras again — and public speakers made their case against the cameras.

BPD has argued that plate-reading camera technology is not new and cameras themselves are not new to the City, having been in place since 2012. Chief Jamal Simington reiterated the cameras could save officer manpower and money by allowing them to locate suspects or stolen vehicles faster.

Critics, including the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and, on Wednesday, representatives from the Afro-Socialist and Black Indigenous People of Color Caucus and Conexionas Latinas de McLean County, have argued the plate-reading technology is invasive, the data collected unsafe in the hands of a private company, and the cameras themselves unverified in their ability to reduce crime rates.

The disparity between the police department and public speakers prompted PSCRB member William Bennett to suggest that even if the board did recommend the cameras be adopted, the tenor of public comment needed to be passed on to council members.

"I think that as far as our board hearing from the police department and also being ears to our community, we should present that," he said. "I'm hearing a lot of unreadiness in the community. I don't know if that will make a difference, but ... our city council should have that information as well."

Member Art Taylor said the board also needed to add to the recommendation that an element of external oversight into the data collected by Flock cameras needed to be worked into BPD's policy. While BPD has said it will conduct internal audits to ensure the camera data is being used appropriately and measure their efficacy, Taylor emphasized the external part of his concern.

"I'm comfortable with the information that was shared by the chief about the reduction of crime — or the use of the information to reduce crime and violent crime, particularly when it comes to murders and homicides and burglaries and child abductions and rapes, serious crimes that occur in our city that we all want to see reduced to an absolute zero," he said. "I just am more concerned about making sure that there is some oversight. ...That's a long way of saying I would I would be OK with the cameras with extra oversight."

The Rev. Brigitte Black, another member of the PSCRB, added another caveat to the board's recommendation, saying city council members and others should consider the cameras a tool of solving crime, not preventing it — although Simington said the hope is the cameras serve as a deterrent.

"We want our police officers to have whatever they need to solve crimes," Black said. "But this is not about crime reduction, because then we have to look at solutions in terms of what the problem is — how we got to the crime in the first place. ...We support this as a crime-solving technique and another tool in their toolbox to solve crimes, but not as crime reduction."

Fish said she believed BPD had gone "out of its way to use these cameras and set up the policies in a very non invasive way."

"I trust the police. There's cameras everywhere (already)," she said. "So, if they're going to be used to catch or find one child that was missing and they find them, it's worth it."

All PSCRB members were present at Wednesday meeting, although member Jeff Woodard left before a vote on the recommendation was taken. No members who were present voted against recommending the council accept BPD's proposal with the caveats PSCRB provided.

Board chair Ashley Farmer suggested the fact that a contract for the cameras showed up on a consent agenda without public input or council member discussion ahead of time contributed to the split opinions within the community.

"Since you're planning on this being a two-year contract... my suggestion would be that, when it comes time to renew the contract, or think about extending the contract, those conversations with the public start happening way earlier in open forum events ... even to the PSCRB," she said. "Make public that 'We're going to have these conversations about the extension of the contracts — assuming that it is approved by city council — way sooner and much more openly.'"

The two-year, $59,000 contract between Flock Safety and BPD will likely be on the city council's agenda on Monday, Feb. 28.

If members do approve the contract, they'll be following in the footsteps of at least 79 other agencies in the state that have adopted the cameras, including Peoria, Decatur and Champaign.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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