The Oak Park Village Board is considering a new ordinance that would require public hearings before the village board accesses any new surveillance technology to be used by the village and its police department. If passed, the ordinance would also compel the Oak Park Police Department to release an annual written report of the specific surveillance technology in use, including associated fiscal costs, a summary of any community complaints, any adverse or discriminatory impacts, and its effectiveness.

At present, the village does not utilize any surveillance equipment that the public does not know about, according to Police Chief Shatonya Johnson, but the new ordinance, if adopted, is intended to promote transparency and protect civil liberties by providing greater oversight.

The draft ordinance defines surveillance technology as “any device or system designed, used, or intended to collect, retain, process, or share audio, electronic, visual, location, thermal, olfactory, or similar information associated with, or capable of being associated with, any specific individual or group of specific individuals by the Police Department for law enforcement purposes.”

The village board discussed the draft ordinance at its Monday night meeting and board members were widely in favor of enacting such a policy with Trustee Chibuike Enyia noting that the current lack of such a policy contributed to backlash over the village’s automatic license plate reading cameras.

“This is a step in the right direction that our villagers want to see happen,” said Enyia.

Back in April 2022, the village failed to inform the community and gather public input before purchasing Flock automatic license-plate-reading cameras. The village likewise failed to seek the advice of BerryDunn, the firm contracted at the time to conduct an equity assessment of the village’s police department. The counsel of the Community Relations Committee and the Civic Information Systems Commission was also not sought ahead of the vote. The CRC criticized the use of Flock in a letter to the village board due to the purchasing contract’s absence of a privacy policy and the belief that the cameras could potentially contribute to racially-biased policing.

The original Flock resolution called for the purchase of 20 cameras, but the village board ultimately reduced the number to eight and the amended resolution narrowly passed in a 4-3 vote. Not believing the village had done its due diligence in informing the community, Enyia voted against the resolution and Village President Vicki Scaman, who voted in favor of the eight cameras, apologized for not giving related citizen commissions an opportunity to provide input in the decision. The village president also directed the CISC to create a privacy policy.

Scaman acknowledged last year’s misstep Monday night, stating, “That was a time we really could have done better as a board.”  

The prospective surveillance ordinance, introduced by Trustee Cory Wesley, would safeguard the village from further failures to engage the public regarding surveillance matters. Unlike the situation with Flock, village staff worked directly with the CISC to develop the draft ordinance, according to Village Manager Kevin Jackson. Scaman praised Jackson for utilizing the commission and the commission gave unanimous recommendation to the board in favor of the ordinance.

The draft ordinance is based on a model ordinance from the American Civil Liberties Union and a similar policy enacted in Dayton, Ohio. The ACLU’s ordinance does not prohibit the use of surveillance technology, although they have condemned the use of automatic license-plate-reading cameras.

If passed, the ordinance would necessitate that the village host public hearings for all new surveillance technology in consideration. The village must also provide proper notice of such hearings and adequate opportunities for the public to provide written, online and oral testimony.

As drafted, the proposed ordinance does afford the police department the authority to implement surveillance equipment without prior village board approval and without public hearings in times of “exigent circumstances.” Under that provision, the police can only employ unapproved surveillance technology to address those circumstances. Such “exigent circumstances” include mass shootings and terrorist attacks, according to the police chief.

In these cases, the draft ordinance states a report must be filed with the village manager explaining why unapproved surveillance technology was used and for what purpose within 30 days of the end of the exigent circumstance.

The board directed staff to clarify the meaning of exigent circumstances within the ordinance to decrease the chances of misinterpretation. Staff was also directed to change the timing in which these reports are filed from within 30 days of the end of the exigent circumstance to within 30 days of the start of the exigent circumstance.

Once staff has updated the ordinance, the village board will make a final decision on whether to adopt it. That date has not yet been determined, but Scaman told Wednesday Journal it is likely to be soon.

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