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Can Cameras Replace Cops?

No one can say for sure why murders and violent crimes are on the rise in Chicago. But some criminologists are questioning why the new police superintendent, Jody Weis, is moving away from proven community policing strategies.

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They’re watching you: Inside the Office of Emergency Management and Communications


On a cool night last September, Alderman John Pope (10th Ward) and two police officers met with 20 or so people from South Chicago, a neighborhood reeling from months of violence. “I’ve lived here my entire life,” one woman told them, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Over the spring and summer, gangs in the neighborhood—along the lake, ten miles south of the Loop—had grown frighteningly bold. Six people had been murdered since June, 12 people over the previous eight months. On Labor Day, ten-year-old Nequiel Fowler was shot and killed as she stopped to tie her blind sister’s shoes.

The meeting, part of a citywide community policing program, was held in the basement of Immaculate Conception Church, 2944 East 88th Street, and the large space looked a bit like a classroom: residents arranged in a few rows of folding chairs, all of them facing police officers who sat behind a metal table. Outrage over Nequiel’s murder had brought more people than usual to the meeting and her death loomed over the conversation. She was killed, the police say, when an alley became a battleground for the Latin Kings and Latin Dragons.

At first, Pope and the officers encouraged the group to attend an upcoming court hearing for the four men arrested in the shooting. But the residents seemed uninterested and distracted. Several of them looked down, avoiding eye contact with the officers. Never mind the murder trial—what was protecting them from violence like this? What would save them from the shooters they’d never see? One man stood up and asked whether or not a city surveillance camera had anything to do with the arrests.

It was a fair question. Several of the blinking boxes now towered over the modest homes and stores of South Chicago, and they had been installed with a promise of helping prevent crime. At the very least, they were supposed to help during an investigation. Did a detective tapping into the city’s surveillance network see Nequiel’s killers? Did the zoom lens capture the license plate of a suspicious car? “Did it help at all?” the man asked.

“No,” Alderman Pope replied. The shooters were outside the camera range. “Information from neighbors was the key.”

Just a few years ago, meetings like the one in South Chicago were an integral part of a program called CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy), started in 1993, that emphasizes police and community partnerships to prevent crime. But today, so-called community policing is being challenged like never before. Last fall, the city slashed its CAPS budget and delivered another, equally powerful blow: a hiring freeze on all but a small number of new officers.

Now, the city that pioneered community policing is blending in another innovative approach that relies on cameras, artificial intelligence, and global positioning systems. At presstime, a plan was under way to install surveillance cameras in 281 squad cars, or one for each of the city’s police beats. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to community policing because of its cost,” says Freddrenna Lyle, a South Side alderman (6th) who presides over some of the city’s most violent communities. “It’s scary. We are moving toward the Big Brother concept.”

Photograph: Joshua Lott/Reuters



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