Smile Politely

Reexamining surveillance and private security in Champaign

In the past year, the City of Champaign made two policy decisions related to community violence prevention that we have been skeptical of: granting the Champaign Police Department use of gun detection technology (to be used in the Garden Hills neighborhood) and the purchase of 36 automated license plate readers, and the decision to hire a private security firm to “patrol” Downtown Champaign on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from May 1st through the end of the year.

In recent weeks, both of these items were in the news, so we’re taking a look at the effects, or lack thereof, they’ve had on violence prevention in the months they’ve been in place. 

Gun Detection and Automated License Plate Readers

On August 30th, a person suspected of involvement in a fatal shooting just north of Downtown Champaign was apprehended using a combination of tactics, including a tip from a witness, use of surveillance footage from a business, and an automated license plate reader. Does this one success story (at least the only one we know of) make the technology worth it? When these technologies were approved at the end of 2021, we were concerned about the potential for causing additional harm in predominantly Black neighborhoods: 

“These interventions — and the people advocating for them —  are explicit in saying who and where will be monitored. It is an historically and predominantly Black neighborhood and its Black male residents who will be surveilled by an institution (the police) developed to keep Black people in a certain place, behaving in a certain way.

This gun violence is not new, but it is worse than before. The lack of opportunities plaguing our Black and Brown and poor neighbors is not new, but the pandemic has exacerbated things. Now that gun violence has trickled into whiter and wealthier neighborhoods and commercial districts we, as a community, are demanding action. But at what cost?”

The monetary cost is approximately $200,000 for two years of use. Shootings have decreased in the first part of 2022 as compared to the same time period in 2021, by 51%. It should be noted, however, that the GDT and ALPR surveillance were  not installed until May, and the data is through July 11th, which is to say that the decrease in reported shootings may be a matter of correlation not implying causation. This also happened while there was and continues to be a shortage of police officers, which precipitated the use of a private security firm for Downtown Champaign.

Private Security

When the city council issued a Request for Proposals for private security back in April, we had a myriad of questions about this decision. The measure was meant to compensate for a shortage of police officers, with the goal of addressing “safety and nuisance concerns” before they escalate into larger issues, according to police spokesman Joe Lamberson, as quoted in the News-Gazette. Last week, N-G reporter Ethan Simmons essentially did a “ride along” with the security officers from AGB Investigative Services on a Friday night. Some of our questions were answered through the narrative in the article, though not all.

  • What are “less-lethal” options for officers to use against citizens? 

According to the article, they have handcuffs, the physical presence of their bodies, and that’s about it. When they were hired they expected to have tasers, pepper spray, and possibly firearms.

  • At what point will they be authorized to use these options? 

It’s unclear when they would go ahead with the use of handcuffs, but should they come upon a brewing conflict they can try to put themselves in the way and verbally diffuse the situation.

  • What sort of steps will be taken to diffuse and address safety concerns?

See above.

  • Who will dispatch the officers to these incidents? Business owners? City officials? 

It seems like most of the evening is the officers making rounds to different bars and parts of downtown. They might be approached by a person in need of help, or a bar owner or bouncer might direct them to help remove a person from an establishment.

  • Can the security officers detain someone? 

They have handcuffs, though it’s not clear when they would be authorized to use them.

  • Where exactly will officers be stationed? 

They have a coverage area that they maintain, and they move around to various locations depending on the time of night.

  • Who will they report to? 

The article refers to them “writing reports” at the end of the night. It’s not clear who these go to… likely the City or the Champaign Police Department.

  • Who will assess and respond to citizen complaints? 

This is not clear. 

  • What are citizens’ legal protections in interactions with these officers? 

This is also unclear.

  • How much will this cost?

According to the article, AGB will receive just over $200,000 for their services this year, for 8 months of service.

  • Is there data on the effectiveness of utilizing private security and a decrease in public “nuisance” issues? 

Still not clear. It’s notable that as the security officers were ending their shift on this particular night, a shooting occurred just outside their contracted area. This is the same shooting that resulted in the suspect being apprehended in part by using the ALPR, as mentioned above.

The security officers are not much more than a physical presence downtown. It’s unclear whether that presence is making a difference, nevermind enough of a difference to justify the spending. But they are getting cars towed and stopping for photo ops.

Those who work in gun violence prevention know which strategies have been proven to reduce gun violence, and more surveillance and policing are not at the top of the list. Thankfully, the Community Gun Violence Prevention Blueprint passed by the City Council earlier this year focuses much of its funding on programming that gets to the root of the issue, including “income inequality, poverty, underfunded public housing, under-resourced public services, achievement gaps in schools, lack of opportunity and perceptions of hopelessness, and easy access to firearms by high-risk people.”

We hope that the City and the Champaign Police Department conduct regular reviews of these programs. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

Top screenshot from

More Articles