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City surveillance cameras go undercover

FRAN SPIELMAN / Chicago Sun Times | October 4 2006

Chicago will spend $1 million next year to install 100 more surveillance cameras on high-crime street corners — this time, cameras of the stealth variety — to monitor gang and drug activity.

Operation Disruption cameras used to be about as subtle as a punch in the nose. They weighed 100 pounds, had flashing blue lights and were encased in the Chicago Police Department’s classic logo. The $30,000 cameras virtually announced that you were entering a high-crime neighborhood.

The next generation of video surveillance — in a city that’s fast become famous for it — is a lot more discreet. The camera weighs just 15 pounds, costs $6,000 and looks about as unobtrusive as a street light. Digital recordings can be stored and downloaded within minutes.

Both versions have night vision capability and the ability to rotate 360 degrees. Gunshot detection technology is “still being tested,” officials said.

“In some communities, they want the blue light because they’re sick and tired of the gangbangers and drug dealers.….And that announces [the presence of a camera] much more” than the new version, Mayor Daley told reporters after a police graduation at McCormick Place.

“Some people want the blue light [camera]. Some don’t. So you have to work with the community. …Sometimes, they can put [the more obtrusive] camera in for a temporary period of time — six months to a year — crime lessens and they put the other camera” in.

Calling surveillance cameras the “next best thing” to a police officer on every corner, the mayor said he won’t stop installing cameras “until people feel very safe on every block. That’s all they want. They want to feel safe — in the alley, in front of their home.”

Police Supt. Phil Cline said the new and improved cameras can be moved more easily to accommodate shifting crime patterns. In some neighborhoods, signs will be posted warning criminals that Big Brother is watching. In other places, there will be no warning signs.

“It looks like a streetlight. So it’ll come to our tactical advantage,” Cline said.

The new cameras will bring to 300 the number of cameras installed in high-crime areas with microwave antennas that beam pictures back to the 911 center and district stations.

Although critics contend the presence of cameras shifts crime to the next block, Cline argued otherwise. In neighborhoods that have had cameras for more than six months, reports of criminal incidents are down more than 30 percent and narcotics-related crimes have dropped by over 60 percent, he said.

“When we install a camera, we’re also implementing violence reduction strategies to ensure the crime simply doesn’t move down the block or around the corner,” he said.

The Chicago Police Department has a dozen suitcases that allow police officers to monitor cameras from crime scenes. But Daley said his ultimate goal is to let all officers monitor cameras on their beats from their squad cars. That technology is still being developed. The city is also continuing to test sophisticated software capable of spotting “suspicious and unusual behavior” spotted by its network of more than 2,200 cameras.

Also on Tuesday, the mayor announced that Chicago Police officers issued 10,359 citations — and levied 281 fines against parents — in a summer crackdown against curfew violations.

Chicago’s year-round curfew ordinance prohibits anyone under the age of 17 from being out after 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday or after 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Parents whose kids are caught committing crimes after curfew face fines as high as $500.

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