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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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A Big Brother box: Surveillance cameras like this one have the ability to detect the sounds of gunshots within a two-block radius.

Right now, so-called “geeks with guns” in the Crime Prevention Information Center at the police department’s headquarters are monitoring street corners from their office chairs, mouse-clicking from camera to camera, checking on sensors that listen for gunshots. Similarly, officers in some police districts are using surveillance cameras synched to their desktop computers to watch for suspicious activity. A few months ago, the city rolled out “video analytics,” a pilot computer program that trolls through infinite hours of video, looking for suspicious people, objects, and behavior. In the future, the city hopes that officers in the field will be equipped with handheld devices that access the entire camera network. Schools, businesses, and homeowners have connected their private surveillance cameras to the citywide system.

“The technology that we’re seeing now is really just in its beginning stages, and I think it will only be limited by our imagination,” says Chicago police superintendent J. P. “Jody” Weis. “We have to be creative because the criminals are creative, and I think the cameras are going to make a huge difference in how crime is fought.”

Chicago has never been shy about its use of crime-fighting technology and “intelligence-led policing.” But the city has long championed CAPS and technology, a blend of the two. The recent budget moves suggest the years of balancing megabytes and manpower are over. “It’s easier to put a camera up to watch over a neighborhood than it is to put a police officer on the corner,” says Isaac Carothers, the West Side alderman (29th) who chairs the city council’s police and fire committee. “Not that it’s necessarily more effective. But it is less expensive.” By Carothers’s estimation, an officer costs at least $100,000 a year, a sum that includes training, salary, and benefits. A surveillance camera costs about $13,000—and that figure is likely to drop, police officials say, as the technology gets cheaper.

Weis says he wants to continue to push the concept of intelligence-led policing, using real-time information to guide police resources. “What I want is to get to the point where we are developing intelligence that allows us to take action and move resources based on that—with the ultimate goal of being able to get ahead of the crime,” he explains.

The stakes are high. Four years after leading the country in murders, Chicago had made steady progress toward distancing itself from the dreaded moniker of “murder capital,” dropping from 601 murders in 2003 to 445 in 2007, its lowest murder total in four decades. Last year, however, the city’s homicide total rose about 15 percent to 510 murders, just 12 shy of New York, a city with nearly triple the population of Chicago. And while some might feel inclined to blame the spike in violence on last year’s wretched economy, it’s worth noting that other big cities—Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, even Detroit—had fewer murders in 2008 than the year before. Two cities that had led the nation in per capita murders, New Orleans and Gary, Indiana, also saw fewer killings.

Meanwhile, the police department’s leadership has gone through its own rapid and significant changes. Though it may have been a coincidence, the 15 percent murder spike also happened in the same year that the department struggled to adjust to new leadership under Weis, a former FBI agent and the first outsider to run the department in 40 years. Arrest numbers were down. Some officers publicly blamed the decrease on a less aggressive approach, a position inspired by low morale, little faith in leadership, and a lack of manpower.  Weis, invoking his frequently used explanation, says 2008 was a year of transition. “I was new; I was learning the department. In 2009, the transition is over; it’s now a year for results.”

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Photograph: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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