The headlines in Champaign-Urbana have been horrifying for the past year, and then some. There’s rarely a day that goes by without being reminded of gun violence’s grip on our cities, with victims oftentimes, tragically, in their youth. This isn’t just an opinion – shooting incidents are skyrocketing in Champaign-Urbana. 

As of September 21st, the City of Champaign so far in 2021 has had 197 confirmed shooting instances, eclipsing 2020’s total by 8 with 25% of the year to go. By September 21st, the number of shooting victims and homicides has also already outpaced 2020’s total number. Shootings in Urbana this year surpassed 2020’s total by June.

With all of those grim statistics, it’s natural to understand why residents and representatives feel so reactionary towards the issue of crime and gun violence in town. The helpless feeling that comes from reading tragedy after tragedy in the paper inspires action, and it’s natural to look for a quick, decisive solution. Unfortunately, the situation that has led to such a violent environment, both in C-U and elsewhere, simply doesn’t have a quick solution.

The Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology being debated by both the City of Champaign and the City of Urbana right now, as a means to combat this rise in violence, is not a sufficient answer. It’s not even a sufficient first step.

These license plate readers, which will be placed throughout neighborhoods in Champaign and Urbana, will read every license plate that drives down a certain street and collect it in a database for 30 days. This information, while collected by a vendor (in this case, Flock Safety), will be the police’s to use when they need it to solve a crime, as it was used in Rantoul earlier this year.

Seems good right? In a matter of minutes, these readers helped catch, and subsequently punish, a criminal. Now, cities across the region are implementing the license plate readers in hopes that they will catch more criminals. In theory, this will help remove violent individuals from the streets, creating a safer city. But in practice, how does this differ from the same over policing and fence-building that has been happening in Champaign’s underprivileged neighborhoods for decades?

Not only that, but because the police department controls this data, it is ripe for abuse. Police departments have shown us, again and again, that they cannot be trusted with systems like these. Across the country, departments have used this technology to harass the poor and incentivize debt collection. This potential for abuse is a pretty pervasive opinion of ALPR opponents; it’s also the opinion of Champaign City Councilman Tom Bruno, who said in an October 5th Study Session “I’m going to vote that we pursue these technological advances, but I predict that they will be eventually abused because that’s human nature.”

Here’s where the irony comes in: In May, based on privacy concerns, the same Champaign City Council voted down smart sensors provided by an academic collaboration to measure air quality and environmental impact. These sensors, not used for punishment or policing but rather science, crossed over the line, but police surveillance doesn’t? Here was Councilman Bruno’s quote from that meeting:

“I’m not ready to accuse anybody of having bad motives now,” Councilman Tom Bruno said. “But I also don’t want my fingerprints on government action that makes it easier for people of future years or future generations to violate the civil liberties of Americans.”

How does that not apply to automatic license plate readers? It certainly should, or else the Council’s logic is inconsistent.

Reactionary policies like this are akin to the passing of the Patriot Act in October of 2001. Both are strong-armed tactics that seem politically good at the moment, and capitalize off of this to create a more robust police presence in the name of safety. The problem is that, much like the Patriot Act, these new policies and tools also erode American civil rights and liberties. Just ask the ACLU or the non-partisan Brennan Center. For what it’s worth, many surveillance provisions in the Patriot Act expired last year, and have yet to be renewed for a reason.

This rise in gun violence, while tragic, isn’t unique to C-U. It’s not unique to Illinois. It’s a nationwide crisis unfolding in real time; nearly every metro area in the United States has seen a spike in violence. Maybe it has something to do with the ongoing pandemic, the lack of a social safety net in the United States, and the desperation that many are feeling in COVID’s wake. Maybe it has something to do with how easily accessible guns are in this country. Maybe it has something to do with decades of disinvestment and neglect for affected neighborhoods.

While this is not a unique problem to C-U, part of the reason this matters so much is that our cities’ responses to the problem can be. While many municipalities around C-U have deployed ALPR technology to create a more robust police state, C-U can choose to actually face the root problem head on: creating community trust and engagement with the police.

But instead, by engaging with Flock Safety to monitor the movements of civilians, our city governments are choosing to take the easy way out. They’re choosing punishment and potential problems down the line over civil liberties, when they could devote their energy entirely to breaking down generational barriers now.

These cameras cost money. A lot of money. The license plate readers alone cost $99,000/year. Our governments could see this as a chance to invest that money into underprivileged communities; the same ones that will receive the vast majority of ALPRs. Instead of using that money on punishment, they could use it on taking care of those communities’ basic needs, like streetlights, sidewalks, and flooding infrastructure. They could even explore incentive programs for citizens who engage with the police, as was mentioned at a recent City of Champaign Study Session, and supported by the Mayor.

But instead, the cities have gone with the reactionary choice: ALPRs and surveillance technology. These don’t address any of the root problems that cause the violence – they only serve to punish. It’s the same exact logic that Penny For Your Thoughts callers use when they say we can simply arrest our way out of gun violence. This isn’t possible. It’s been proven time and time again, and the damage from policies that support that attitude can induce generational trauma.

Over the past year, the cities have said, countless times, that they want to have a dialogue with underprivileged and underrepresented communities. How is putting up automatic police readers (that collect evidence that will be used to punish) reaching these communities? They may catch a couple criminals now, as has happened in Rantoul, but what is the effect 10 years down the line? 20 years? Will more residents be engaged with the police as a result of these cameras? Will citizens trust the police more because of them? That would be hard to imagine. It’s not backed up by any data. In fact, the data supports the opposite.

If the goal of our city governments is to better engage with underrepresented communities, building fences of police surveillance around them achieves the opposite of their goal. It’s so contradictory that it makes my head spin. The license plate readers decision actively rebukes the city’s talking points over the past year, which have indicated true progress.

ALPRs are a dime-sized band-aid for a deep cut. Sure, they may stop some of the bleeding, but they’re not a long-term solution. They don’t treat the real wound. They don’t create communities that trust the police; they make the problem worse. If our governments were really interested in helping these communities, they would look to the basic needs of communities where violence occurs, not seek to increase the surveillance state as an outsized reaction. It’s a bad solution.

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