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Bloomington City Council OKs police use of license-plate reading cameras

Dameca Kirkwood, left, and Melissa Newbill, address the Bloomington City Council during its meeting Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, at the Government Center, 115 E. Washington Street, Bloomington.
Michele Steinbacher
Dameca Kirkwood, left, stands with Melissa Newbill, as Newbill addresses the Bloomington City Council during its meeting on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, at the Government Center, 115 E. Washington Street, Bloomington.

Bloomington is joining a growing list of cities adding license-plate reading cameras to their policing efforts, despite opposition from some local residents who say the policy for such devices is vague and raises privacy issues.

On Monday night, the Bloomington City Council voted 8-1 in favor of a two-year contract with Flock Safety. The Atlanta, Ga.-based company will install and maintain 10 automatic vehicle license plate readers (ALPRs) in the city, at an annual cost of about $30,000.

Ward 4's Julie Emig was the only "no" vote, saying that many of her constituents continue to have concerns about Flock Safety's handling of data privacy.

"We have a responsibility to serve and protect the most vulnerable" and these devices will help do that, said Bloomington Police Chief Jamal Simington, adding the pursuit of advancing technology is part of BPD's mission.

The ALPRs, which capture alpha-numeric data from license plates, notify BPD if a suspect in a major investigation passes that camera. Simington noted Bloomington is taking a conservative approach, compared with some other cities that use the technology. He said the readers only will be used in major crimes such as homicide, shootings, or sexual assault.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council heard an update on next year's budget proposal, heard the BPD's strategic plan; and learned about a $1 million-plus grant at Heartland Community College that's encouraging some of Bloomington's west side residents to get job training.

License plate readers

The city’s contract with Flock Safety, means 10 ALPRs, will be placed on several streets in Bloomington.

"Having technology like this could help solve (crimes) — no one has said it will solve all all these crimes — but it could help. It's another data point," said council member Sheila Montney of Ward 3, reflecting on current major investigations in Bloomington. She was among the eight council members voting "yes" Monday.

Ward 7's Mollie Ward and Ward 8's Jeff Crabill initially had reservations, but voted "yes" after assurances Chief Simington would report on the final policy, and bring updates to the council on how the data is used.

The council initially scheduled a Jan. 10 vote on the ALPR issue. However, it delayed the vote, after push back from several community members and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. They raised privacy issues, and concerns about the technology disproportionately targeting minorities.

At the time, critics also decried the council’s initial planto vote on the matter as a routine agenda item, with no discussion.

City administrators and BPD officials took note, spending the next several weeks discussing ALPRs with Bloomington's community police advisory board, and the city's technology commission.

"It was an opportunity for them to weigh in. It was more than a courtesy, but not a requirement," said Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason, about the meetings.

While board materials from Jan. 10 included just one page about the ALPRs, Monday’s board materials included about 60 pages devoted to the proposal. Chief Simington also led a slideshow about the proposal at Monday's meeting.

Other Illinois communities that have adopted the modern technology include Peoria, which began using the cameras last week.

Chief Simington noted among departments embracing the technology is the Illinois State Police, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation. They use ALPRs on the state's tollways.

Flock Safety has only been around five years. But already, the digital readers are found in more than 1,000 cities in nearly 40 states. More than 600 police departments have adopted the tool, according to council materials.

That's one of the concerns of ALPR opponents. They say it's too early to know if the tool is safe for privacy issues.

At the meeting's start, five public commenters urged the council to vote against installing the cameras, citing such issues. Carol Koos and Georgene Chissell also planned to speak against the vote, but couldn't connect virtually, said Koos, who leads the Central Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Koos said she had planned to urge the council to wait, and clarify information about how the cameras would be deployed before signing any contract with the Atlanta company. She wanted to call for an open community forum on the issue, prior to any vote.

She said the BPD's proposed policy was vague and gave Flock too much leeway on pricing. Koos also said language in the policy challenges the privacy of residents, and the security of their data.

Commenter Noah Anderson said studies have shown the cameras are more likely to be used in neighborhoods mainly home to minorities. He said all communities aren't signing on, noting nearby Urbana voted against using ALPRs.

Also during public comments, Melissa Newbill spoke in favor of the ALPRs. She was joined at the microphone by Dameca Kirkwood, mother of Trevonte Kirkwood, who was killed in 2018 while walking on North Oak Street in Bloomington.

"We are here to say 'yes' to the Flock cameras because had those been installed, it wouldn't have taken this long to find the murderer," said Newbill, a friend of the Kirkwood family. "We believe if these cameras were in place they could help to prevent crime as well," she said. Last week, Jordyn Thornton was found guilty in Trevonte Kirkwood's killing. A co-defendant, Quentin Jackson, was sentenced to 17 years last year for his role in the death.

"I absolutely want to reduce crime," said another commenter, Karla Bailey-Smith, who said she felt sadness for Kirkwood and the death of her son. But the Bloomington resident said she isn't confident such cameras would reduce crime. Bailey-Smith said she's concerned the city is jumping into an agreement with a young company without a proven record of success.

Simington said BPD has used Flock ALPR data from other police agencies to help in its own investigations. He said Bloomington already uses 18 public safety cameras, though the technology is different.

Officials have shared a draft ALPR usage policy. But the final policy requires union approval, Simington said.

Bloomington’s Flock Safety price is guaranteed for two years, but the program automatically renews each year if the city chooses.

BPD strategic plan

In another matter, Chief Simington shared BPD’s three-year strategic plan. It's his first such plan since his August hire.

He told Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe and the city council that BPD has four main goals: reducing crime and the fear of crime; improving quality of life in city neighborhoods; staying current in law enforcement technology; and strengthening and diversifying the department’s staff.

BPD’s strategic plan is in line with the nationally accepted 21st Century Policing Initiative, he said. That’s a 2016 federally issued guide following six pillars. Some of those overlap with BPD’s four goals. On Monday, Simington shared a slide presentation showing how the BPD's goals intersect with the Initiative's six pillars. Those are: building trust; oversight; technology and innovation; community policing/crime reduction; professionalism and training; and strengthening workforce.

Workforce equity initiative

Also at Monday's meeting, Heartland Community College President Keith Cornille and HCC Equity, Diversity and Inclusion chief Terrance Bond shared details of a more than $1 million workforce equity initiative grant.

Cornille noted Heartland's district stretches from Pontiac to Lincoln, along the Interstate 55 corridor. But this grant zeroes in on the 61701 zip code as a demographic in need of better education opportunities. Residents there, especially on Bloomington's west side, near downtown, statistically aren't seeking higher education, at the same rate as their peers.

One of the grant's mission's is to increase earnings for people in that area. The goal is to reach about $17.50 per hour, about 30% higher than the Bloomington-Normal area's living wage, said Bond.

The Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) grant focuses on providing career training for underemployed or unemployed learners within the Black and Latino communities, as well as among low-income residents. Of the 145 students enrolled in the programs in 2022, the grant requires 60 percent be Black students, said Bond.

The initiative, created in 2019, partners ICCB with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and the state’s community colleges. The training aims to fill workforce skills gaps with short-term training programs, career and technical education certificates.

Some HCC certificates include electric vehicle maintenance, medical assistant, office assistant and truck driver training. The EV program, in particular, is getting attention with Rivian's Normal site. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently visited that HCC program.

Besides tuition, the grant covers college fees, success coaching and career navigation support, as well as technology support, transportation, and childcare needs.

Nearly $1 million community grants awarded

The council also approved distributing about $930,000 in John M. Scott Health Care Trust grant awards, a record amount, and nearly 25% more than what was awarded last year. Officials attribute the increase to an uptick in the trust’s stock market performance.

The city council formally authorizes the grant awards, as it serves as trustee for the Scott Health Care Trust. However, the money is not city dollars.

More than 90% of the Scott Heath Care Trust annual budget is dispersed directly as grants, according to city council materials.

Top award recipients for this year include the Community Health Care Clinic, and the McLean County Center for Human Services, said Kyana Wilkinson, Scott Committee secretary. Both organizations earned $125,000 awards.

Other recipients include Project Oz receiving $100,000, Western Avenue Community Center, about $78,000; and several others.

More than 20 applications seeking nearly $1.5 million came to the Trust this year. That's a $300,000 increase in funding sought from the previous year.

In other business, the council approved spending for:

  • Human resources software — about $138,000 with Kronos Inc.
  • Seven new police vehicles — about $378,000 with Greenfield-based Morrow Brothers Ford. The vote also authorizes auctioning off the replaced vehicles.
  • The O’Neil Pool and Park project — about $80,000 with Bloomington-based Midwest Engineering and Testing for geotechnical engineering services. 

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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