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Cameras make surveillance commonplace to Chicagoans

Public, private network covers most of the city

A surveillance camera at the Cabrini Green housing complex in Chicago is one of tens of thousands that keep watch on the city. A surveillance camera at the Cabrini Green housing complex in Chicago is one of tens of thousands that keep watch on the city. (Paul Beaty/Associated Press)
By Don Babwin
Associated Press / April 18, 2010

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CHICAGO — When the body of Chicago’s school board president was found partly submerged in a river last fall with a bullet wound to the head cameras helped determine that it was a suicide.

Friends had speculated someone forced Michael Scott to drive to the river before shooting him — and maybe even wrapped his finger around the trigger.

But within days, police recreated Scott’s 20-minute drive through the city using high-tech equipment that singled out his car on a succession of surveillance cameras. The video didn’t capture Scott’s final moments, but it helped convince police that his death was a suicide: He wasn’t followed. He wasn’t following anyone. He never picked up a passenger.

The investigation offered a riveting demonstration of the most extensive and sophisticated video surveillance system in the United States, and one that is transforming what it means to be in public in Chicago.

In less than a decade and with little opposition, the city has linked thousands of cameras — on street poles and skyscrapers, aboard buses, and in train tunnels — in a network covering most of the city. Officials can watch video live at an emergency command center, police stations, and even some squad cars.

“I don’t think there is another city in the US that has as an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has,’’ said Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security secretary.

New York has plenty of cameras, but about half of the 4,300 installed along the city’s subways don’t work. Other cities haven’t been able to link networks like Chicago. Baltimore, for example, doesn’t integrate school cameras with its emergency system and it can’t immediately send 911 dispatchers video from the camera nearest to a call, like Chicago can.

Even London — widely considered the world’s most closely watched city with an estimated 500,000 cameras — doesn’t incorporate private cameras in its system as Chicago does.

While critics decry the network as the biggest of Big Brother invasions of privacy, most Chicago residents accept the cameras as a fact of life in a city that has always had a powerful local government and police force.

And authorities say the system helps them respond to emergencies in a way never before possible. A dispatcher can tell those racing to the scene how big a fire is or what a gunman looks like. If a package is left next to a building for more than a few minutes, a camera can spot it.

Cameras have recorded drug deals, bike thefts, and a holiday bell ringer dipping his hand into a pot outside a downtown store. Footage from a camera on a city bus helped persuade a suspected gang member to plead guilty to shooting a 16-year-old high school student in 2007.

In the death of the school board president, the cameras helped diffuse mounting suspicion and anger. “It really closed that piece of the puzzle,’’ police Superintendent Jody Weis said. “We don’t know what was going through his head, but we definitely know he was alone.’’

The network began less than a decade ago with a dozen cameras installed in Grant Park to deter violence during the annual Taste of Chicago festival.

While authorities would not say exactly how many cameras are included, with 1,500 installed by emergency officials, 6,500 in city schools, and many more at public and private facilities, nobody disputes an estimate of 10,000 and growing. Weis said he would like to add “covert’’ cameras, perhaps as small as matchboxes.

City officials from around the world have visited Chicago to see the system and how effective it is.

Chicago police point to 4,000 arrests made since 2006 with the help of cameras. And, an unpublished study by the Washington-based Urban Institute found crime in one neighborhood — including drug sales, robberies, and weapons offenses — decreased significantly after cameras were installed, said Nancy La Vigne, director of the institute’s Justice Policy Center.

“It does stop people from coming out and acting the fool,’’ observed Larry Scott, who lives in one of the city’s last remaining public housing high-rises.

He said residents rarely complain, unless they get caught for a minor offense or the cameras fail to record a violent attack.

“People were upset when that boy was killed by the 2-by-4 and there were no pictures,’’ he said, referring to the beating death of a high school student that was recorded by cellphone but not city cameras last year.

Police say they usually hear from Chicago residents about the cameras only when they want one installed in their neighborhood or worry one will be removed. Such a claim is supported by an unlikely source: the American Civil Liberties Union, which has criticized the use of cameras as an invasion of privacy and ineffective crime-fighting tool.

“It does appear that people only object when they get a ticket [because of a camera] for running a red light,’’ ACLU spokesman Edwin Yohnka said.