Waukesha, Wisconsin, just over one year ago.

A driver sped through the town’s annual Christmas parade, killing six people and injuring even more.

As with mass shootings, multiple-casualty events involving vehicles are happening far too frequently. Some are terrorist-related, others are caused by drivers who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, are mentally ill, or have a medical episode.

With all of that in mind, the City of Evanston’s Special Events Committee is recommending the purchase of portable and easily deployable vehicle barriers called Meridian Archer 1200s, which were tested recently at the local Christmas tree lighting.

Some of the Meridian barriers used during the tree lighting ceremony in Fountain Square this month. (Bill Smith photo)

“Roadway security and crowd control are an increasing concern due to the rise in violence and mass casualty incidents across the United States,” according to a memo from Parks & Recreation/Special Events Director Audrey Thompson.

Parks & Rec Director Audrey Thompson and EPD Sgt. Scott Sophier at Economic Development Committee meeting, Nov. 30. (Jeff Hirsh photo)

The Special Events panel is asking City Council to spend $612,000 in federal ARPA dollars for 60 Meridian steel barriers, which would block streets and sidewalks during special events, but still provide space for pedestrians to walk through.

The barriers come with a trailer which can be pulled by city-owned pickup trucks.

There would also be one portable but staffed gate, to allow event-related vehicles and police cars/fire trucks to enter.

Besides improving safety, city officials say the Meridian barricades will also reduce personnel overtime costs, because in some cases, fewer police officers will be required.

For example, the “Bike the Ridge” cycling event now requires 24 police officers. Buying the barriers, the memo says, could reduce that by at least 10, saving a lot of overtime expense. The barriers would block side streets. Some police would still be required for overall event security.

There’s also another way to save money. The city currently uses snowplow trucks as special events barriers. Bringing in drivers on overtime is an expense as well.

Not only that, but Thompson’s memo points out that snowplows block pedestrian access, and are not exactly the most visually attractive perimeter for an art show, festival, or other crowd-atttracting activity.

“Most of the city’s snow vehicles are aged and rusted,” the memo states, “and not the best advertisement for the event or the city.”

Economic Development Director Paul Zalmezak told a recent Economic Development Committee meeting that buying the barriers would also be a “way to expand our outdoor actitivies,” because the high cost of police and public works overtime may prevent some sponsors from having an event.

At the same Economic Development meeting, Police Sgt. Scott Sophier said that “as opposed to using city vehicles, these barriers are small but heavy and durable.”

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), the Economic Development chair, said the barriers “sound like a great idea,” but wondered if it would be less costly to rent them as needed.

Ald. Claire Kelly (1st), also on the panel, wanted to know what other communities are using them.

And Ald. Devon Reid (8th) wondered if city officials are becoming “doomsday preppers.”

A decision on the purchase was continued until January, to allow city staff to research the questions.

One study says that between 1970 and 2019, there were 257 vehicle-involved terrorist attacks worldwide, including 25 in the United States. More than 800 people in total were killed, and more than 1700 were injured.

Among those attacks — 87 died in Nice, France, in 2016, eight in New York City in 2017, one killed and 19 injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 when a white supremacist drove through a crowd of protesters and 10 killed in Toronto, Ontario, in 2018.

In Vail, Colorado, police say anti-vehicle barriers from Meridian prevented a suspected drunk driver from plowing into pedestrians at a summer festival event last June.

The issue now is whether Evanston wants to spend the money, which is a lot, and would come from ARPA dollars that could be used for other things.

Special Events chair Thompson said the barriers are a worthwhile investment, calling them “insurance. It’s better to have it than not have it.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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