City deploys high-tech cameras to fight crime

They sit atop light poles 20 feet above the ground, flashing blue lights. Their rotating bulletproof lenses with all-weather night vision can survey an area up to four blocks away and can be directed by a remote-control joystick in a portable suitcase.

Welcome to the brave new world of policing in Chicago, where cameras are strategically positioned on street corners in high-crime neighborhoods to scare off gang-bangers and drug dealers and curb the nation's leading homicide rate.

"It's not Big Brother. . . . If you live in a community plagued with guns, gangs and drugs, they're screaming out for any help," Mayor Daley said. "It will enable us to keep an eye on several different street corners at the same time with minimal additional manpower."

Chicago has picked up on the lessons learned from the Iraq war, said Assistant Deputy Supt. Ron Huberman, who helped design the street-corner cameras for Chicago. "Technology enabled our troops to succeed because it acted as a force-multiplier. It allowed our armed forces to have more eyes, more ears and to be more places than they otherwise could be were it not for that technology," Huberman said.

The cameras -- to be installed within the next few weeks -- will be paid for out of drug forfeiture money under a $2 million contract with the Sayers Group -- owned by Gayle Sayers, the legendary Chicago Bears running back. At a cost of $16,000 per camera and $7,000 for each suitcaselike "portable control unit," $2 million would be enough to install cameras at 87 locations. But the contract will cover other equipment.

Daley would not disclose how many cameras the city has bought or where they will be installed. He would only say they would go where the violent crime is, based on up-to-the-minute information. If criminals move to avoid surveillance, the cameras will move with them, the mayor said. It takes just one hour to install the 110-pound units and one hour to take them down, officials said. "This moves, too. Come on. It's common sense," the mayor said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it would not oppose the cameras as long as they are not manipulated to peer into cars and other private spaces.

City Hall plans to preserve only video that captures crimes.

Cameras have become an increasingly popular crime-fighting tool across the nation. Nearly half of the 651 local police agencies surveyed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police last year said they use cameras for surveillance -- either in fixed locations, vehicles or both.

Only 20 percent of the police agencies said cameras are useful for crime reduction. Most said they are most useful for "investigative assistance." Although 65 percent of those questioned have used cameras for more than five years, almost none of them has a formal way to measure their effectiveness.

(Written by Fran Spielman and Frank Main, and published in the 11 July 2003 issue of The Chicago Sun Times.)

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