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Night-vision cameras aim to stop graffiti

FRAN SPIELMAN / Chicago Sun Times | April 6 2006

Graffiti taggers who plaster their destructive artwork on public and private property 125,000 times a year may soon find themselves on Candid Camera thanks to a new high-tech surveillance system capable of zooming in on faces and license plate numbers in the dark.

The Department of Streets and Sanitation bought the $40,265 system from Telecom General Contractors Inc. to combat two vexing problems that can create what City Hall calls an "atmosphere of despair" in Chicago neighborhoods: graffiti and fly-dumping.

"We've had cameras before, but this is three cameras in one and as cutting edge as you can get. It will give us as much as a month's worth of video images. It has superior day-night technology, pan-tilt and zoom capability and will give us an extremely high-quality image," Streets and San spokesman Matt Smith said.

If it works, program will expand

"You have vehicles pulling up quickly and unloading materials. You have people pulling up or coming by on foot, spray-painting or painting and high-tailing it out of there. Something with the clarity and duration of this camera is tailor-made to nail mobile perpetrators."

Smith said the new system would be tested at one location he refused to identify where graffiti and fly-dumping has been a problem, then expanded if it works.

Initially, at least, it will not be linked to the city's 2,000-camera surveillance network or monitored live at the 911 emergency center. That could change later. Until then, digital recordings will be checked only after a violation.

Last summer, City Hall installed 10 surveillance cameras with night-vision capability to catch fly-dumpers who unload oil, garbage and construction debris on vacant lots and public streets.

Since 1993, the Department of Environment has had 10 cameras strategically positioned across the city to stop illegal dumping.

Aldermen applaud crackdown

The decision to double the number of cameras and upgrade their quality was aimed at eliminating an apparent epidemic of dumping waste on the fly, often overnight when no one is around. It happens more than 3,000 times a year. Now, the next generation of camera technology will be applied for the first time in the war against graffiti -- to the delight of aldermen.

"Graffiti artists are the most elusive creatures on Earth. I often marvel at how they can put graffiti and ornate artwork all over buildings, and no one ever catches them," said Ald. Tom Allen (38th).

"It's kind of like someone speeding. If you never get caught, you're going to keep doing it. Anything you can do to catch those guys would be much appreciated, and it would save us a lot of money."

This year, the city has budgeted $6.5 million for graffiti removal and Graffiti Blasters, with 22,000 tags removed during the relatively mild winter months of January and February. In one of those incidents, taggers defaced Chicago's $4.3 million Vietnam War Memorial.

A similar amount was spent last year to remove 125,000 tags.

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