ACLU wants review of city camera system

February 8, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) did the research and is calling for a review of the city's camera network. They are also asking for a moratorium on the installation of new cameras.

The ACLU's long held complaint is now at the heart of the new report that accuses the city of Chicago of plunging head long into building an extensive, expensive surveillance camera network without any appreciable public discussion over what it means and whether it really works. They want the city to slow down and take a hard look at the system.

The city has never disclosed the number of cameras it can access as part of what's called Operation Virtual Shield. It's often said that number is more than 10,000 and growing. Operators at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and at Chicago Police Department district stations across the city can remotely control cameras many miles away. They can tilt, pan and zoom as they're focused on the public way.

"What we have is an unregulated and pervasive threat to individual privacy and we've had no public discussion about it," said Harvey Grossman, ACLU-Chicago.

The ACLU argues that Chicago's network of police surveillance cameras has grown without significant public debate or oversight and that new technology providing for facial recognition and tracking people or vehicles as they move from camera to camera is ripe for abuse. Further, the ACLU says studies of the impact of surveillance cameras on crime are at best inconclusive.

Mohammed Nofal is not a fan of the cameras. One sits across the street from his eatery at 51st and Indiana.

"Everybody that's been here - they know the camera's here, but they keep selling drugs on the corner, so I don't think it makes much difference," Nofal said.

But in many neighborhoods the cameras are warmly embraced as a crime deterrent. Many aldermen say we want more surveillance.

"The citizens and the block organizations said we want it mayor because this protects our schools and our public way," Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said.

The outgoing mayor said Tuesday that cameras solve crimes and save money in the process. Those who want Mayor Daley's job weighed in.

"These cameras are not pointed in living rooms, dining rooms or bedrooms. They're pointed on the public way," Gery Chico, mayor candidate, said.

"Certainly surveillance cameras are needed in some areas," Miguel Del Valle, mayor candidate, said.

"The city has an obligation for a level of trust for those who provide public safety to the public, which means more transparency and information about those cameras," Rahm Emanuel, mayor candidate, said.

Three of the four major candidates who want to be mayor want to study the ACLU report, but do not now support a moratorium on camera placement.

"I don't want for a moment to suggest that there isn't a perception on the part of some citizens that a camera provides protection, but you have to figure what the tradeoffs are. People also feel protection with the presence of police officers and that's the public dialogue that needs to take place," Grossman said.

The OEMC and police say the money spent on the cameras over the years is Homeland Security money - not transferrable to hiring more cops. Furthermore, they say there are specific written rules of engagement for camera operators.

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