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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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In fact, Chicago’s cybersleuth plan was launched nearly a decade ago. It began, in part, with the creation of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) and the million-dollar buildout of a network of underground fiberoptic cables designed to allow the sharing of surveillance among its police, fire, and other departments. After 9/11, federal funding bolstered the city’s defense and surveillance strategies.

Today, Chicago’s surveillance network is widely regarded as among the finest in the nation, if not the world. Inside the command center at OEMC at 1411 West Madison Street, the main control room is designed like the hull of a ship with dedicated sections for police, fire, and other city services. A staffer tracking, say, the route of a fire truck can follow its path on monitors as long as there’s a camera within 150 feet of the vehicle. The picture quality is almost as good as a household television. (The police department has the smaller but similar control room, the Crime Prevention and Information Center, or CPIC.)

Besides being less expensive, cameras are believed to have several other benefits. First, there’s the general idea that the very sight of the machines will deter crime because people are less likely to misbehave when they feel as though they’re being watched. Criminologists believe that the overall effect is to transform once blighted corners, alleys, and the like into safe spots where law-abiding behavior can take over. Second, cameras can be used to move crime away from certain areas, and funnel it toward spots where police might have an easier time making an arrest: forcing drug dealers, for instance, toward a dead-end street where they’d have a tough time making a getaway. Surveillance video can also make for solid evidence in court. “Rather than having the guys do surveillance on the street, they are sitting back and watching it on the cameras,” Weis says. “They’ve got the cars identified, they know who to go after, and they can arrest the people.”

So much surveillance raises serious privacy issues, of course, and every technological development seems to push society closer to the dreaded Big Brother universe. But from a strictly law enforcement perspective, the criticism of camera surveillance starts with an obvious but essential fact: A camera cannot make an arrest. Beyond that, how often does a camera prevent a crime? On some streets, criminals are confident that, even though they’re being recorded, their crimes will go unpunished. “In some parts of my ward the guys are so bold they’ll commit crimes right underneath the cameras,” says Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th). “They know where the blind spots are.”

And who is actually watching the video feeds? “As the camera network continues to grow and grow and grow, you’re faced with that concern: How do you view so many cameras with a limited amount of resources?” says Ray Orozco, commissioner of the OEMC. “The answer to that is simple: We use technology to review technology.”

Beginning late last year, Emergency Management began a slow rollout of a $550,000 federally funded program called video analytics, a form of artificial intelligence that searches the video surveillance system for specific video cues. In real time, the system can now set up a perimeter around a portion of the city, an “electronic fence,” and sound an alert when, say, a red truck passes through. On a more local level, a camera on a street corner can be programmed to look for signs of a fight—perhaps by focusing on images of a group moving together. The system can also troll through thousands of hours of archived footage. As an example, Orozco described how authorities were trying to determine whether someone had buried something in a popular city park. Using video analytics, they gave the camera system an “inject,” the image of a shovel, and had the system troll through months of prerecorded footage. (Nothing was found.)

City officials won’t reveal the exact number of surveillance cameras in place in the city’s 234 square miles, claiming they don’t want to reveal blind spots in coverage. Nor is it easy to determine how much the city spends on surveillance. Much of the network has been paid for with federal money or tucked into various city department budgets. On a neighborhood level, for instance, aldermen can set up cameras with money from their ward budgets, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone specifically accounting for these local expenditures.

What’s more, the city’s network is being bolstered by various city departments and entities: the Chicago Transit Authority, Navy Pier, McCormick Place, Soldier Field, and so on. And Orozco says the police department has started linking the system with private security cameras, those owned and operated by businesses, schools, and even everyday citizens. Last fall, Charles Hill, who has lived in West Chatham with his wife and three boys for the past 13 years, became the first homeowner to connect to the OEMC’s system. His six cameras—installed at a total cost of about $3,000—are trained on his treelined sidewalk, the alley to the west, the industrial street to the south, and the vacant lot to the north. Each camera can capture footage up to 200 yards away. “It’s going to serve the block far greater than it will serve me,” Hill says. “This block can be too damn quiet. Things happen and no one sees them. Now we’ve got a chance to identify anything illegal.”

* * *

At the next month’s CAPS meeting in South Chicago, about 20 people gathered, once again, in the basement of Immaculate Conception Church. A cool October breeze blew in from a set of open doors, and this time the room was arranged differently, as if someone was hosting a banquet. The residents sat in circles around two small tables and four police officers, all of them from the third watch, gathered behind a larger table at the front of the room.

Officer Juana Cuadrado began by announcing another court appearance for the men charged in the Nequiel Fowler shooting. If enough people were interested in going, Cuadrado said, the alderman’s office might pay for a school bus to take everyone to the courthouse. The discussion then moved to another staple of CAPS meetings, a rundown of arrests and the number of calls made to police. Since the last meeting, there had been 46 arrests, 19 juvenile arrests, and 2,522 calls for service.

The numbers didn’t sound right. The residents looked at Cuadrado in disbelief. “I know you guys are frustrated with police not being there,” Cuadrado said quietly.

“What’s going on?” one man asked. “We used to have over 100 arrests a month.”

“The budget’s been cut,” one of the beat officers replied. “There was a newspaper article about it. Jody Weis is cutting the budget again; they’re retiring officers and only hiring 200 new ones. We’re going to be short 800 officers. But why don’t you come and look at the nice camera I have in my car?”

The second beat officer added: “They have a GPS system so they can know where we are. So any incident that anyone has a complaint about, if it happens in front of the car, the whole incident will be videotaped.”

The residents shook their heads in disgust. “You think they can pawn that bean we have downtown?” one resident asked sarcastically, referring to the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park. “So they could pay for more officers?”


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